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FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 



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PRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

BY 
BRADFORD TORREY 



" I must get back to my friends on the shelf " 

Edward FiizGerald 




mmm^mB 



BOSTON AND NEW YORK 
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY 

1906 



COPYRIGHT 1906 BY BRADFORD TORREY 
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 

Published October /god 



OF THIS FIRST EDITION, 150 COPIES HAVE BEEN 
BOUND ENTIRELY UNCUT, WITH PAPER LABEL 



CONTENTS 



William Hazlitt 


1 


Edward FitzGerald 


43 


Thoreau 


§9 


Thoreau*s Demand upon Nature 


131 


Robert Louis Stevenson 


151 


A Relish of Keats 


195 


Anatole France 


227 


Verbal Magic 


275 


QUOTABILITY 


289 


The Grace of Obscurity 


309 


In Defense of the Traveler's Notebook 


319 


Concerning the Lack of an American Lit- 




erature 


329 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 

Happy is the man who enjoys himself. His 
are the true riches. Saving physical pain 
and mortal illness, few evils can touch him. 
He may lose friends and make enemies; 
all the powers of the world may seem to 
have combined against him ; he may work 
hard and fare worse; poverty may sit at 
his table and share his bed; but he is not 
to be greatly pitied. His good things are 
within. He enjoys hhnselj. He has found 
the secret that the rest of men are all, more 
or less consciously, looking for, — how to 
be happy though miserable. It seems an 
easy method; nothing could be less com- 
plicated : simply to enjoy one's own mind. 
The thing is to do it. 

Whether any one ever really accom- 
plished the miracle for more than brief 
intervals at once, a skeptic may doubt; 
but some have believed themselves to have 
accomplished it; and in questions of this 
intimately personal nature, the difference 



4 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

between faith and fact is small and unim- 
portant. It is of the essence of belief not 
to be disturbed overmuch by theoretical 
objections. If I am happy, what is it to me 
that my busybody of a neighbor across the 
way has settled it with himself that I am 
not happy, and in the nature of the case 
cannot be ? Let my meddlesome neighbor 
mind his own affairs. The pudding is mine, 
not his ; and, with or without his leave, the 
proof of the pudding is in the eating. 

These not very uncommonplace reflec- 
tions are suggested by the remembrance 
of what are reported to have been the last 
words of the man whose name stands at 
the head of this paper. He was dying 
before his time, in what the world, if it 
had happened to concern itself about so 
inconsiderable an event, would have called 
rather squalid circumstances. His life had 
mostly been cloudy. The greater part 
of his fifty-two years had been spent in 
quarreling impartially with friends and 
foes, and, strange to say (matters terres- 
trial being habitually so out of joint), the 
logical result had followed. His domestic 
experiences, too, had been little to his 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 5 

comfort and less to his credit. So far as 
women were concerned, he had played the 
fool to his heart's content and his enemies' 
amusement. Of his two wives (both living), 
neither was now at his bedside. His purse 
was empty, or near it. It was almost a 
question how he should be buried. Withal, 
as a man more than ordinarily ambitious, 
he had never done the things he had cared 
most to do; and now it was all over. And 
being always an eloquent man, and having 
breath for one sentence more, he said, 
"Well, I have had a happy life," 

Nor need it be assumed that he was 
either lying or posing. With abundance 
of misfortune and no lack of disappoint- 
ment, with outward things working pretty 
unanimously against him, he had enjoyed 
himself. In a word, he remained to the last 
what he had been from the first, a sentimen- 
talist; and a sentimentalist, like a Chris- 
tian, has joys that the world knows not of. 

For a sentimentalist is one who, more 
than the majority of his fellows, cultivates 
and relishes his emotions. They are the 
chief of his living, the choicest of his crop, 
his "best of dearest and his only care;" 



6 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

as why should they not be, since they give 
him the most of what he most desires? 
Perhaps we should all be sentimentalists 
if we could. As it is, the number of such 
is relatively small, though even at that they 
may be said to be of various kinds, as their 
emotions are excited by various classes of 
objects. 

If a man's nature is religious, his sen- 
timentalism, supposing him to have been 
born with that gift, naturally takes on a 
religious turn; he treasures the luxury of 
contrition and the raptures of assured 
forgiveness. Like one of the earliest and 
most celebrated of his kind, he can feed 
day and night upon tears, — having plen- 
tiful occasion, perhaps, for such a watery 
diet, — and be the more ecstatic in pro- 
portion as he sounds more and more deeply 
the unfathomable depths of his unworthi- 
ness. This, in part at least, is what is meant 
by the current phrase, "enjoying religion." 
Devotional literature bears unbroken wit- 
ness to its reality and fervors, from the 
Psalms of David down to the "Lives of 
the Saints" and the diaries of latter-day 
Methodism. There is nothing sweeter to 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 7 

the finer sorts of human nature than devo- 
tional self-effacement, whether it be sought 
as Nirvana in the silence of a Buddhist's 
cell, or as a gift of special grace in a tu- 
multuous chorus of "Oh, to be nothing, 
nothing," at a crowded conventicle. Small 
wonder that the 

"willing soul would stay 
In such a frame as this. 
And sit and sing itself away 
To everlasting bliss." 

Small wonder, surely; for, say what you 
will (and the remark is not half so much a 
truism as it sounds), one of the surest ways 
to be happy is to have happy feelings. 

This cultivation of the religious sensi- 
bilities is probably the commonest, as at 
its best it is certainly the noblest form of 
what, meaning no offense, — though the 
word has been in bad company, and will 
never recover from the smirch, — we have 
called sentimentalism. But there are other 
forms, suited to other grades of human 
capacity, for all men are not saints. 

There is, for example, especially in these 
modern times, a purely poetic suscepti- 
bility to the charms of the natural world; 



8 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

so that the favored subject of it, not every 
day, to be sure, but as often as the mood is 
upon him, shall experience joys ineffable, 

" Trances of thought and mountings of the mind," 

at the sight of an ordinary landscape or 
the meanest of common flowers. 

Of a much lower sort is the sentimental- 
ism of such a man as Sterne; a something 
not poetical, only half real, a kind of rhe- 
torical trick, never so neatly done, but still 
a trick, and whatever of genuine feeling 
there is in it so alloyed with baser metal 
that even while you enjoy to the very mar- 
row the amazing perfection of the writing 
(for it would be hard to name another book 
in which there are so many perfect sen- 
tences to the page as in the ''Sentimental 
Journey "), — even while you feel all this, 
you feel also what a relief it would be to 
speak a piece of your mind to the smirk- 
ing, winking, face-making clergyman, who 
has such pretty feelings, and makes such 
incomparably pretty copy out of them, 
but who will by no means allow you to for- 
get that he, as well as another, is a man of 
flesh and blood (especially flesh), knowing 



WILIJAM HAZLITT 9 

a thing or two of the world in spite of his 
cloth, and able, if he only would (though 
of course he won't), to play the rake as 
handsomely as the next man. A strange 
candidate for holy orders he surely was, 
even in a country where a parish is frankly 
recognized as a "living"! It is a comfort 
to be assured, on the high authority of Mr. 
Bagehot, that the only respect in which he 
resembled a clergyman of our own time 
was, that he lost his voice and traveled 
abroad to find it. 

And once more, not to refine upon the 
point unduly, there are such men as 
Rousseau and Hazlitt; not great poets, 
like Wordsworth, nor mere professional 
dealers in the pathetic, like Sterne, but 
men of literary genius very exceptionally 
endowed with the dangerous gift of sen- 
sibility; which gift, wisely or unwisely, 
they have nourished and made the most of, 
first for their own exquisite pleasure in it, 
and afterward, it may well be, for the sake 
of its very considerable value as a literary 
"asset." 

Rousseau and Hazlitt, we say; for 
though the two are in some respects greatly 



10 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

unlike, they are plainly of the same school. 
For better or worse, the English boy 
came early under the Frenchman's influ- 
ence, and, to his credit be it spoken, he 
was never slow to acknowledge the debt 
thus incurred. His passion for the "New 
Eloise" was in time outgrown, but the 
"Confessions" he "never tired of." He 
loved to run over in memory the dearer 
parts of them: Rousseau's "first meeting 
with Madame Warens, the pomp of sound 
with which he has celebrated her name, 
beginning ' Louise-Eleonore de Warens 
etait une demoiselle de La Tour de Pil, 
noble et ancienne famille de Vevai, ville 
du pays de Vaud' (sounds which we still 
tremble to repeat) ; his description of her 
person, her angelic smile, her mouth of 
the size of his own; his walking out one 
day while the bells were chiming to ves- 
pers, and anticipating in a sort of waking 
dream the life he afterward led with her, 
in which months and years, and life itself, 
passed away in undisturbed felicity; the 
sudden disappointment of his hopes; his 
transport thirty years after at seeing the 
same flower which they had brought home 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 11 

together from one of their rambles near 
Chambery ; his thoughts in that long inter- 
val of time; his suppers with Grimm and 
Diderot after he came to Paris; . . . hisf 
literary projects, his fame, his misfortunes, 
his unhappy temper; his last solitary retire- 
ment on the lake and island of Bienne, with 
his dog and his boat; his reveries and 
delicious musings there — all these crowd 
into our minds with recollections which 
we do not choose to express. There are 
no passages in the *New Eloise' of equal 
force and beauty with the best descrip- 
tions in the 'Confessions,' if we except 
the excursion on the water, Julie's last 
letter to St. Preux, and his letter to her, 
recalling the days of their first love. We 
spent two whole years in reading these 
two works, and (gentle reader, it was when 
we were young) in shedding tears over 
them, 

*as fast as the Arabian trees 
Their medicinal gums.' 

They were the happiest years of our life. 
We may well say of them, sweet is the dew 
of their memory, and pleasant the balm of 
their recollection!" 



12 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

The whole passage is characteristic and 
illuminating. Hazlitt is speaking of an- 
other, but as writers will and must, whether 
they mean it or not, he is disclosing him- 
self. The boyish reader's tears, the grown 
man's trembling at the sound of the elo- 
quent French words, and the confession 
of the concluding sentence (which he 
repeated word for word years afterward 
in the essay, "On Reading Old Books") 

— here we have the real Hazlitt, or rather 
one of the real Hazlitts. 

He was strong in memory. His very 
darkest times — and they were dark enough 

— he could brighten with sunny recollec- 
tions: of a painting, it might be, seen 
twenty years before, and loved ever since; 
of a favorite actor in a favorite part; of 
a book read in his youth ("the greatest 
pleasure in life is that of reading, while 
we are young"); of the birds that flitted 
about his path in happier mornings ; of the 
taste of frost-bitten barberries eaten thirty 
years before, when he was five years old, on 
the side of King-Oak Hill, in Weymouth,* 

* In this Old Colony town, though none of his English 
biographers appear to know it, the boy Hazlitt lived in the Old 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 13 

Massachusetts, and never tasted since; of 
the tea-gardens at Walworth, to which his 
father used to take him. Oh yes, he can 
see those gardens still, though he no longer 
visits them. He has only to "unlock the 
casket of memory," and a new sense comes 
over him, as in a dream; his eyes '' dazzle," 
his sensations are all "glossy, spruce, 
voluptuous, and fine." What luscious ad- 
jectives! And how shamelessly, like an 
innocent, sweet-toothed child, he rolls 
them under his tongue ! Their goodness is 
inexpressible. But listen to him for an- 
other sentence or two, and see what a favor 
of Providence it is for a writer of essays to 
be a lover of his own feelings: "I see the 
beds of larkspur with purple eyes; tall 
hollyhocks, red or yellow; the broad sun- 
flowers, caked in gold, with bees buzzing 
round them; wildernesses of pinks, and 
hot, glowing peonies ; poppies run to seed ; 

North Parsonage, in which had Hved some time before a girl 
named Abigail Smith, afterward better known as Abigail 
Adams, wife of the second President of the United States, 
and mother of the sixth. For which fact, more interesting to 
him than to his readers, it is to be feared, the present writer is 
indebted to the researches of his old Weymouth schoolmate, 
now President of the Weymouth Historical Society, Mr. John J. 
Loud. 



14 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

the sugared lily, and faint mignonette, all 
ranged in order, and as thick as they can 
grow; the box-tree borders; the gravel 
walks, the painted alcove, the confection- 
ery, the clotted cream : — I think I see 
them now with sparkling looks; or have 
they vanished while I have been writing 
this description of them ? No matter; they 
will return again when I least think of 
them. All that I have observed since of 
flowers and plants and grass-plots seem 
to me borrowed from 'that first garden 
of my innocence ' — to be slips and scions 
stolen from that bed of memory." 

How eloquent he grows! "Slips and 
scions stolen from that bed of memory!" 
The very words, simple as they are, and 
homely as is their theme, throb with emo- 
tion, and move as if to music. " Most elo- 
quent of English essayists," his latest 
biographer pronounces him; and, whether 
we agree with the judgment or not (sweep- 
ing assertions cost little, and contribute 
to readability), at least we recognize the 
quality that the biographer has in mind. 

A sentimentalist, of all men, knows how 
to live his good days over again. Pleasure, 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 15 

to his thrifty way of thinking, is not a 
thing to be enjoyed once, and so done 
with. He will eat his cake and have it 
too. Nor shall it be the mere shadow of a 
feast. Nay, if there is to be any difference 
to speak of, the second serving shall be 
better and more substantial than the first. 
To him nothing else is quite so real as the 
past. He rejoices in it as in an unchange- 
able, indefeasible possession. "The past 
at least is secure." If the present hour is 
dark and lonely and friendless, he has only 
to run back and walk again in sunny, 
flower-bespangled fields, hand in hand 
with his own boyhood. 

Such was Hazlitt's practice as a senti- 
mental economist, and it would take an 
unusually bold Philistine, we think, to 
maintain that it was altogether a bad one. 
The words that he wrote of Rousseau are 
applicable to himself: *'He seems to 
gather up the past moments of his being 
like drops of honey-dew to distil a precious 
liquor from them." To vary a phrase of 
Mr'. Pater's, he is a master in the art of 
impassioned recollection. 

It makes little difference where he is, or 



16 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

what circumstance sets him going. He 
may be among the Alps. "Clarens is on 
my left," he says, "the Dent de Jamant is 
behind me, the rocks of Meillerie oppo- 
site : under my feet is a green bank, enam- 
elled with white and purple flowers, in 
which a dewdrop here and there glitters 
with pearly light. Intent upon the scene 
and upon the thoughts that stir within 
me, I conjure up the cheerful passages of 
my life, and a crowd of happy images ap- 
pear before me." Or he is in London, and 
hears the tinkle of the "Letter-Bell" as it 
passes. "It strikes upon the ear, it vibrates 
to the brain, it wakes me from the dream 
of time, it flings me back upon my first 
entrance into life, the period of my first 
coming up to town, when all around was 
strange, uncertain, adverse, — a hubbub 
of confused noises, a chaos of shifting 
objects, — and when this sound alone, 
startling me with the recollection of a letter 
I had to send to the friends I had lately 
left, brought me as it were to myself, made 
me feel that I had links still connecting 
me with the universe, and gave me hope 
and patience to persevere. At that loud- 



WILLIAM IIAZLITT 17 

tinkling, interrupted sound, the long line 
of blue hills near the place where I was 
brought up waves in the horizon, a golden 
sunset hovers over them, the dwarf oaks 
rustle their red leaves in the evening 
breeze, and the road from Wem to Shrews- 
bury, by which I first set out on my jour- 
ney through life, stares me in the face 
as plain, but, from time and change, as 
visionary and mysterious, as the pictures 
in the 'Pilgrim's Progress.'" 

"When a man has arrived at a certain 
ripeness in intellect," says Keats, "any 
one grand and spiritual passage serves 
him as a starting-post towards all 'the 
two-and-thirty Palaces.'" Yes, and some 
men will go a good way on the same royal 
road, with no more spiritual incitement 
than the passing of the postman. 

How fondly Hazlitt recalls the day of 
days when he met Coleridge, and walked 
with him six miles homeward; when "the 
very milestones had ears, and Hamer Hill 
stooped with all its pines, to listen to a poet 
as he passed." At the sixth milepost man 
and boy separated. "On my way back," 
says Hazlitt, " I had a sound in my ears — 



18 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

it was the voice of Fancy; I had a light be- 
fore me — it was the face of Poetry." A 
second meeting had been agreed upon, and 
meanwhile the boy's soul was possessed 
by ''an uneasy, pleasurable sensation," 
thinking of what was in store for him. 
" During those months the chill breath of 
winter gave me a welcoming; the vernal 
air was balm and inspiration to me. The 
golden sunsets, the silver star of evening, 
lighted me on my way to new hopes and 
prospects. / was to visit Coleridge in the 
spring.'' 

Verily, the words of the dying man begin 
to sound less paradoxical. He had been 
happy. If his buffetings and disappoint- 
ments had been more than fall to the lot 
of average humanity, so had been his joys 
and his triumphs. He had more capacity 
for joy. Therein, in great part, lay his 
genius. To borrow a good word from 
Jeremy Taylor, all his perceptions were 
'* quick and full of relish." Even his sor- 
rows, once they were far enough behind 
him, became only a purer and more 
ethereal kind of bliss. So he tells us, in one 
of his later essays, how he loved best of all 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 19 

to lie whole mornings on a sunny bank 
on Salisbury Plain, with no object before 
him, neither knowing nor caring how the 
time passed, his thoughts floating like 
motes before his half-shut eyes, or some 
image of the past rushing by him — 
"Diana and her fawn, and all the glories 
of the antique world." "Then," he adds, 
"I start away to prevent the iron from 
entering my soul, and let fall some tears 
into that stream of time which separates 
me farther and farther from all I once 
loved." Whether the tears were physical 
or metaphorical, whether they wet the 
cheek or only the printed page, the man 
who shed them is not, on their account, 
to be regarded as an object of commisera- 
tion. Sadness that can be thus described, 
in words so like the fabled nightingale's 
song, "most musical, most melancholy," 
is more to be desired than much that goes 
by the name of pleasure, and the deeper 
and more poignant the emotion, the more 
precious are its returns. 

Nobody ever understood this better 
than Hazlitt. His sentimentalism, as we 
call it, was no ignorant, superficial gift of 



20 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

young-ladyish sensibility. It had intellect- 
ual foundations. He felt because he knew. 
He had been intimate with himself; he 
had cherished his own consciousness. He 
remarks somewhere that the three perfect 
egotists of the race were Rousseau, Words- 
worth, and Benvenuto Cellini. He would 
defy the world, he said, to name a fourth. 
But he might easily enough have named 
the fourth himself, had not modesty — 
or something else — prevented. If he had 
lived longer, he would perhaps have writ- 
ten the fourth man's autobiography; his 
formal autobiography, that is to say. In 
fact, though not in name, he had already 
written it; some might be ready to main- 
tain (but they would be wrong) that he 
had written little else. By "egotism" he 
meant not selfishness in the more ordinary, 
mercantile acceptation of the word, — a 
lack of benevolence, an extravagant desire 
to be better off than others in the way of 
worldly "goods," — but the very quality 
we have been trying to show forth: ab- 
sorption in one's own mind, a profound 
and perpetual consciousness of one's own 
being, the habit of interfusing self and out- 



WILLIAM HAZLITT ^ 

ward things till distinctions of spirit and 
matter, finite and infinite, self and the 
universe, are for the moment almost done 
away with, and feeling is all in all. 

This, or something like this, was Haz- 
litt's secret. This is the breath of life that 
throbs in the best of his pages. Whatever 
subject he handled, a prize-fight, a game 
of fives, a juggler's trick, a play of Shake- 
speare, a picture of Titian, the pleasure of 
painting, he did it not simply con amore, 
or, as his newer critics say, with gusto (the 
word is Hazlitt's own — he wrote an essay 
about it), but as if the thing were for the 
time being part and parcel of himself. And 
so, oftener than is commonly to be ex- 
pected of essay-writers, his sentences are 
not so much vivid as alive. 

More than most men, he was alive him- 
self. In Keats's phrase, he felt existence. 
There was no telling its preciousness to 
him. The essay "On the Feeling of Im- 
mortality in Youth," though at the end it 
breaks out despairingly into something 
like the old cry, Vanitas vanitatum, is filled 
to the brim with a passionate love of this 
present world. The idea of leaving it is 



22 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

abhorrent to him. To think what he has 
been, and what he has enjoyed, in those 
good days of his; days when he "looked 
for hours at a Rembrandt without being 
conscious of the flight of time;" days of 
the "full, pulpy feeling of youth, tasting 
existence and every object in it." What 
a bliss to be young! Then life is new, 
and, for all we know of it, endless. As for 
old age and death, they are no concern of 
ours. " Like a rustic at a fair, we are full 
of amazement and rapture, and have no 
thought of going home, or that it will soon 
be night." Sentences like this must have 
been what Keats had in mind when he 
spoke so lovingly of "distilled prose;" 
prose that bears repetition and brooding 
over, like exquisite verse. Some sentences, 
indeed, are better than whole books, and 
this of Hazlitt's is one of them; as fine, 
almost, — as purely "distilled," — as that 
famous kindred one of Sir William Temple : 
"When all is done, human life is, at the 
greatest and the best, but like a froward 
child, that must be played with and hu- 
mored a little to keep it quiet till it falls 
asleep, and then the care is over." 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 23 

And since we are quoting (and few au- 
thors invite quotation more than HazHtt, 
as few have themselves quoted more con- 
stantly), let us please ourselves with another 
sentence from the same essay, — a page- 
long roll-call of a sentimental man's beati- 
tudes, turning at the close to a sudden 
blackness of darkness : — 

"To see the golden sun, the azure sky, 
the outstretched ocean; to walk upon the 
green earth, and be lord of a thousand 
creatures; to look down yawning preci- 
pices or over distant sunny vales; to see 
the world spread out under one's feet on a 
map; to bring the stars near; to view the 
smallest insects through a microscope; to 
read history, and consider the revolutions 
of empire and the successions of gener- 
ations; to hear of the glory of Tyre, of 
Sidon, of Babylon, and of Susa, and to say 
all these were before me and are now no- 
thing; to say I exist in such a point of time 
and in such a point of space; to be a spec- 
tator and a part of its ever-moving scene; 
to witness the change of season, of spring 
and autumn, of winter and summer; to 
feel heat and cold, pleasure and pain, 



24 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

beauty and deformity, right and wrong; 
to be sensible to the accidents of nature; 
to consider the mighty world of eye and 
ear; to listen to the stock-dove's notes 
amid the forest deep; to journey over 
moor and mountain ; to hear the midnight 
sainted choir; to visit lighted halls, or the 
cathedral's gloom, or sit in crowded thea- 
tres and see life itself mocked ; to study the 
works of art and refine the sense of beauty 
to agony; to worship fame, and to dream 
of immortality ; to look upon the Vatican, 
and to read Shakespeare ; to gather up the 
wisdom of the ancients, and to pry into 
the future; to listen to the trump of war, 
the shout of victory ; to question history as 
to the movements of the human heart; to 
seek for truth; to plead the cause of hu- 
manity; to overlook the world as if time 
and nature poured their treasures at our 
feet — to be and to do all this, and then in 
a moment to be nothing!" 

"To look upon the Vatican, and to 
read Shakespeare!" Once more we are 
reminded of Keats, a man very differ- 
ent from Hazlitt in many ways, but, like 
him, "a near neighbor to himself," and 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 25 

a worshiper of beauty. '* Things real," 
says Keats, **such as existences of sun, 
moon and stars — and passages of Shake- 
speare." 

HazHtt's nature was peculiarly intense, 
with the very slightest admixture of those 
saner and commoner elements that keep 
our poor humanity, in its ordinary mani- 
festations, comparatively reasonable and 
sweet. His years, from what we read of 
them, seem to have passed in one long state 
of feverishness. He cannot have been a 
pleasant man either for himself or for 
any one else to live with. Self-absorbed, 
irascible, and proud, with little or no gift 
of humor (sentimentalists as a class seem 
to be deficient in this quality, the case of 
Sterne to the contrary notwithstanding; 
and Sterne's humor is perhaps only an 
additional reason for suspecting that his 
fine sentiments were mostly literary), he 
had a splendid capacity for hating, and 
was possessed of a kind of ugly courage 
that made it easy for him to speak with 
extraordinary plainness of other men's 
defects. If the men happened to be his 
friends, so much the better. He professed, 



26 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

indeed, to like a friend all the more for 
having *' faults that one could talk about." 
"Put a pen in his hand," says Mr. Birrell, 
"and he would say anything." Whatever 
he said or did, suffered or enjoyed, it was 
all with a kind of passion. As the common 
saying is, there was no halfway work with 
him. It could never be complained of him, 
as he complained of some other writer, that 
his sentences wanted impetus. He under- 
stood the value of surprise, and never 
balked at an extreme statement. Thus he 
would say, in the coolest manner imagin- 
able, "It is utterly impossible to persuade 
an editor that he is nobody." As if it really 
were! As if it were not ten times nearer 
impossible to persuade a contributor that 
he is nobody! 

On his way to the famous prize-fight, — 
famous because he was there, — spending 
the night at an inn crowded with the 
"Fancy," he overheard a "tall English 
yeoman" holding forth to those about him 
concerning "rent, and taxes, and the price 
of corn." One of his hearers ventured at 
a certain point to interpose an objection, 
whereupon the yeoman bore down upon 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 27 

him with the word, "Confound it, man, 
don't be insipid." "Thinks I to myself," 
says Hazhtt, "that's a good phrase." And 
so it was, and quite in his own Kne. " There 
is no surfeiting on gall," he remarks some- 
where, with admirable truth. He wrote an 
essay upon " Cant and Hypocrisy," another 
upon " Disagreeable People," and another 
upon the '' Pleasure of Hating." And he 
knew whereof he spake. Sentimentalism 
— the Hazlitt brand of it, at any rate — is 
nothing like sweetened water. "If any one 
wishes to see me quite calm," he says, in 
his emphatic manner, "they may cheat me 
in a bargain, or tread upon my toes; but a 
truth repelled, a sophism repeated, totally 
disconcerts me, and I lose all patience. I 
am not, in the ordinary acceptation of the 
term, a good-natured man." "Lamb," he 
once remarked, "yearns after and covets 
what soothes the frailty of human nature." 
So did not Hazlitt. Lamb delighted in 
people as such. Even their foibles — espe- 
cially their foibles, it would be truer to say 
— were pleasant to him. In short, he was 
a humorist. Hazlitt's first interest, on the 
other hand, seems to have been in places 



28 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

and things, — including books and pic- 
tures, — and his own thoughts about them. 
Of human beings he Hked personages, so 
called, men who have done something, — 
actors, painters, authors, statesmen, and 
the like. As for the common run of his 
foolish fellow mortals, if their frailties 
were to be stroked, by all means let it be 
done the wrong way. The operation might 
be less acceptable to the patient, but it 
would probably do him more good, and 
would certainly be more amusing to the 
operator and the lookers-on. 

No doubt the man experienced now and 
then a reaction from his prevailing con- 
dition of feverishness. He must have 
had moods, we may guess, when he saw 
the beauty and comfort of a quieter way 
of life. Indeed, he has left one inimitable 
portrait of a character the exact reverse of 
his own, a portrait drawn not bitterly nor 
grudgingly, but in something not alto- 
gether unlike the affectionately quizzical 
spirit of Lamb himself. He calls it the 
character of a bookworm. 

''The person I mean," he says, "has 
an admiration for learning, if he is only 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 29 

dazzled by its light. He lives among old 
authors, if he does not enter much into 
their spirit. He handles the covers, and 
turns over the page, and is familiar with 
the names and dates. He is busy and self- 
involved. He hangs like a film and cob- 
web upon letters, or is like the dust upon 
the outside of knowledge, which should 
not be rudely brushed aside. He follows 
learning as its shadow; but as such, he is 
respectable. He browses on the husk and 
leaves of books, as the young fawn browses 
on the bark and leaves of trees. Such a 
one lives all his life in a dream of learning, 
and has never once had his sleep broken 
by a real sense of things. He believes 
implicitly in genius, truth, virtue, liberty, 
because he finds the names of these things 
in books. He thinks that love and friend- 
ship are the finest things imaginable, both 
in practice and theory. The legend of 
good women is to him no fiction.^ When 
he steals from the twilight of his cell, the 
scene breaks upon him like an illuminated 
missal, and all the people he sees are but 
so many figures in a camera obscura. He 

^ As it was to Solomon and, by this time, to William Hazlitt. 



30 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

reads the world, like a favorite volume, 
only to find beauties in it, or like an edition 
of some old work which he is preparing 
for the press, only to make emendations 
in it, and correct the errors that have inad- 
vertently slipt in. He and his dog Tray 
are much the same honest, simple-hearted, 
faithful, affectionate creatures — if Tray 
could but read ! His mind cannot take the 
impression of vice; but the gentleness of 
his nature turns gall to milk. He would 
not hurt a fly. He draws the picture of 
mankind from the guileless simplicity of 
his own heart; and when he dies, his spirit 
will take its smiling leave, without ever 
having had an ill thought of others, or the 
consciousness of one in itself!" 

It would have been for Hazlitt's happi- 
ness, or at least for his comfort, if he had 
possessed a grain or two of his bookworm's 
"guileless simplicity/' But things must be 
as they must. His name was not Nathan- 
ael. He was "dowered with the hate of 
hate, the scorn of scorn," and it was not 
in his nature to be patient and easy-going, 
especially where anything so vitally essen- 
tial as a difference of opinion touching 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 31 

the character of Napoleon Bonaparte was 
concerned. He had the quahties of his 
defects. If he was sometimes too peppery, 
he was never insipid. 

Men write best of matters in which they 
are most interested and most at home, and 
of HazKtt we may say, speaking a httle 
cynically, after his own manner, that with 
all his multiplicity of topics, he wrote best 
about his own feelings and his neighbors' 
infirmities, though as for the latter sort of 
material, to be sure, he did not confine 
himself very strictly to that with which his 
fellow men furnished him. Proud as he 
was, indeed (and here we may note an- 
other characteristic of the sentimentalist), 
he had sometimes a really shocking lack 
of decent personal reserve. During his 
infatuation with Miss Sarah Walker, as all 
the world — or all the Hazlitt world — 
knows, he could not keep his tongue in his 
head. He would even buttonhole a stranger 
on a street corner, and unbosom his woes* 
to him at full length in most unmanly 
fashion: how he loved the girl, and how 
the girl would not love him, and so on, and 
so on. And having perpetrated this almost 



S2 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

incredible absurdity, he would tell of it 
afterward ; and then, to make matters still 
worse, when he had recovered from his 
distemper (always a rapid process in his 
case), he wrote a book about it. This 
book is reprinted, all in fair type, in the 
latest and handsomest edition of his works ; 
but, thank Heaven, we are none of us 
bound to read it. Nor need we take the 
whole miserable business too seriously, as 
if (except on its literary side) it were any- 
thing so very far out of the common. 
It was ridiculous, of course; but so are 
the love affairs of elderly men generally. 
Their folly has passed into a proverb. As 
wise old Izaak Walton — who had two 
excellent wives of his own, both "of 
distinguished clerical connexion" — long 
ago expressed it, "love is a flattering mis- 
chief," " a passion that carries us to com- 
mit errors with as much ease as whirl- 
winds move feathers." The good man's 
assonance would have driven Flaubert 
insane, but his doctrine is consolatory. A 
feather may surely be excused for slipping 
its cable before a whirlwind. 

It was only a year or two after the 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 33 

conclusion of this distressing episode that 
HazHtt, being in Italy, wrote one of the 
most delightful of his essays, the one upon 
a sun-dial. 

''Horas non numero nisi serenas is the 
motto of a sun-dial near Venice," — so he 
begins. Then, after descanting upon the 
exceeding beauty and appropriateness of 
the Latin words, he falls foul of the French 
people for the *'less sombre and less edify- 
ing" turn that they are accustomed to give 
to similar matters. He has seen a clock in 
Paris bearing a figure of Time seated in 
a boat, which Cupid is rowing along, with 
the motto, U Amour fait ^passer le Tem'ps; 
a motto that the French wits, it appears, 
have travestied into Le Temps fait passer 
L" Amour, This is ingenious, he concedes 
(how could he help it.?), but it lacks senti- 
ment. *'I like people," he declares, "who 
have something that they love, and some- 
thing that they hate." The French "never 
arrive at the classical — or the romantic." 
The criticism may or may not be just (it 
seems a hard saying), but what the aver- 
age reader of the paragraph is likely to be 
thinking of, if he happens to be familiar 



34 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

with the story of Hazhtt's own adventures 
with Cupid, is not any weakness of the 
French people, but the amusing clever- 
ness with which the Parisian wits have 
hit off the weakness of a certain literary 
Englishman. Truly Le Temps fait passer 
L'Avwur, — sometimes with deplorable 
celerity, — on both sides of the Channel. 

Naturally, however, nothing of this sort 
occurred to Hazlitt. His good memory 
was like the sun-dial, — it counted none 
but the bright hours. By this time he had 
almost forgotten both his unhappy passion 
and the unhappier book that he wrote 
about it. 

And, indeed, it is time that we forgot 
them. For one who has found his profit 
in strolling up and down in Hazlitt's essays 
at odd hours for half a lifetime, it is little 
becoming to talk overmuch about the 
man's personal imperfections. It matters 
little to any of us now that his temper was 
bad; that his passions too often betrayed 
him into folly; that his faculties lacked 
a certain balance; that his mal de reverie, 
whether born with him or caught from 
his French master, sometimes ran too 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 35 

feverish a course; that, in short, he had 
the not unusual weaknesses of super-sensi- 
tive men. What does matter is that at his 
best he wrote EngHsh prose as compara- 
tively few have written it, and in doing so 
said a world of bright and memorable 
things that no one else could have said so 
well, even if it had ever occurred to any 
one else to say them at all. If he was diffi- 
cult to live with, that is a question more 
than seventy years out of date; and no 
competent reader ever brought a similar 
accusation against his essays. It has been 
said of them more than once, to be sure, 
that they are not so good as Lamb's; but 
then, you may say that of all essays; and 
really the comparison is futile, not to call 
it foolish. The men were nothing alike; 
though even so, we may gladly agree with 
Mr. Henley's comment, that, as ''dis- 
similars," they "go gallantly and naturally 
together — par nohile fratrum,'' 

Perhaps Hazlitt sometimes wrote too 
much in haste, with hardly sufficient care 
for those minute excellences that go to the 
making of perfection, though he could talk 
edifyingly under that head, and appears 



36 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

to have been the author of the clever 
parody, more clever than true, — as clever- 
ness is apt to be, — 

"Learn to write slow: all other graces 
Will follow ill their proper places; " 

and it may be, as one of the cleverest 
of his admirers assures us, that he was 
''really too witty." Concerning points so 
nice as these, it is hard for "honest and 
painful men" to feel certain. Haste has 
the compensatory virtue of generating heat, 
while as for the having too much wit, it 
is like having too much money, or more 
than one's share of personal beauty; seri- 
ous misfortunes, both of them, beyond a 
doubt (every one says so), but misfortunes 
to be put up with, at a pinch, in a spirit 
of Christian resignation. All things con- 
sidered, too much is perhaps better than 
too little, and, for better or worse, excess 
on both sides of the line is rather Hazlitt's 
"note." Of the virtues of courage and 
obstinacy he possessed enough for two. 
We applaud, even while we pity, to see 
how, all his life long, he stood up for what 
he believed to be the truth, in spite of the 
frowns, and worse than frowns, of all who 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 37 

in that day had it in their power to blast 
the career of men in his profession. He 
was defamed and abused, for political rea- 
sons, — all for that unlucky Bonapartean 
bee' in his bonnet, — as few men of letters 
have ever been, and to the last he did not 
haul down his flag. Let so much be said 
in his honor. And whatever else is for- 
gotten, let the words of Charles Lamb be 
remembered: "I should belie my own 
conscience if I said less than that I think 
W. H. to be in his natural and healthy 
state one of the wisest and finest spirits 
breathing." The most virtuous of those 
who blame him may count themselves 
happy ever to receive half so handsome 
a tribute from so authoritative a source. 
Human nature is a tangled skein; moral 
perfection is not to be encountered every 
day, even among critics. To do one's main 
stint well is probably as much as most 
of us can reasonably hope for; and so 
much, assuredly, Ilazlitt did; for his main 
work, as we see it, was the writing of 
his few volumes of critical and miscellane- 
ous essays. Into these he put the breath 
of long Hfe. These are what count, seventy 



38 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

years after. Whoever begins with them, 
recurs to them. Not one of them but 
comes under Lamb's heading of " take- 
do wnable." 

As a matter of course, however, being a 
man of active mind and having his living 
to make by his pen, he wrote many things 
besides these. He began, indeed, with a 
metaphysical treatise, — a child of his 
youth (he believed it a great discovery) 
for which he never ceased to cherish an 
excusable fondness. This, on the authority 
of those who have read it, or have talked 
with some who have done so, we take to 
be a rather difficult and innutritions choke- 
pear, something to be safely left alone by 
ordinary seekers after knowledge. Then, 
toward the end of his career, he produced 
a four- volume life of Napoleon, which, on 
equally good authority, we should think 
to have been a kind of anticipation or 
foreshadowing of the modern "novel with 
a purpose." His latest editors go so far as 
to leave it out of their fine twelve-volume 
edition of his works. Somewhere between 
these two attempts at immortality he in- 
dulged himself in a book on grammar, 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 39 

intended especially to correct the errors 
of Lindley Murray, more particularly, we 
believe, his faulty definition of a noun as 
the name of an object. Fortunately or 
otherwise, this work (every author of con- 
sequence has at least one such) never got 
beyond the original (manuscript) edition. 
The making of it seems a queer freak for 
a man of Hazlitt's turn of mind; but then, 
as Mr. Birrell observes, "grammar has its 
fascinations; and even such men as John 
Milton and John Wesley, no less than 
William Cobbett and William Hazlitt, suc- 
cumbed to its charm." And he might have 
added a name more illustrious still, — the 
name of Julius Caesar. 

All these longer works (including a" Re- 
ply to Malthus") we consider ourselves, 
as readers, at full liberty to skip. Further- 
more, we consider their merits or demerits 
to have no bearing whatever upon the 
question of their author's standing as an 
essayist. Like every man who practices an 
art, he is entitled to be judged, not by 
his experiments and failures, but by his 
successes. Wordsworth might have writ- 
ten a thousand " Ecclesiastical Sonnets," 



40 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

instead of only one hundred and thirty odd, 
and every one of them might have been less 
imaginative than the one before it, with- 
out making him any the less a true and 
noble poet. For a poet, like the Pope, is in- 
fallible only when he is inspired; at other 
times he may nod as well as another man. 
Moreover, in the case of the poet, at least, 
the man himself may not be sure whether 
or not, at any given moment, the divine 
afflatus is upon him. It was Doctor John- 
son, a poet himself, and the biographer 
of poets, who said that it was easy enough 
to make verses; he had made a hundred 
in a day ; the difficulty was to know when 
you had made a good one. And the same 
difficulty, in a less degree, is encountered 
by the maker of prose essays. It is a wise 
father that knows his own child. Nor in 
such a matter have a man's contempo- 
raries any great advantage over the man 
himself. The folly of their judgments is 
proverbial. It is necessary to wait. Ap- 
parently there is some strange virtue in 
the mere lapse of time. "Time will tell," 
the common people say; and the scholar 
has no better wisdom. Hazlitt must stand 



WILLIAM HAZLITT 41 

his trial with the rest. Sooner or later the 
years will render their verdict, though none 
of us may live long enough to hear it. The 
best that can be said now is, that so far 
the balloting seems to be strongly in his 
favor. 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 

*'I HAVE been reading a good deal, but not 
much in the way of knowledge." So the 
future translator of Omar Khayyam wrote 
to a friend in 1832, being then twenty- 
three years old, and two years out of the 
University. The words may be taken as 
fairly descriptive of the remaining jBfty 
years of his life. He was always reading 
something, but not with an eye to rank or 
scholarship. His old friends and school- 
fellows one after another stepped into high 
place. Tennyson, Thackeray, and Carlyle 
were names on every tongue; Spedding, 
less talked about, was deep in a magnum 
opus; Thompson, Donne, Peacock, Allen, 
and Cowell held positions of honor in 
church or college; but FitzGerald had 
buried himself of set purpose in an insig- 
nificant, out-of-the-way Suffolk village, 
and, by his own account of himself, was 
dozing away his years in "visionary inac- 



46 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

tivity," — in ''the enjoyment of old child- 
ish habits and sympathies." 

Not less truly than his mates, however, 
as it now appears, he was living his own 
life; and perhaps not less truly than the 
foremost of them he was to come into last- 
ing renown. Such are the "diversities of 
operations," through which the spirit of 
man develops and discloses itself. 

Fitz Gerald came of an eccentric family. 
"We^re all mad," he wrote; and his own 
share of the ancestral inheritance — mostly 
of an amiable and amusing sort — early 
made itself evident. While he was at Cam- 
bridge, his mother drove up to the college 
gate in her coach and four, and sent for 
him to come down and see her; but he 
could not go, — his only pair of shoes was 
at the cobbler's. The Suffolk friend, from 
whom we have this anecdote, adds that to 
the last Fitz Gerald was perfectly careless 
of dress. "I can see him now," he says, 
"walking down into Woodbridge, with 
an old Inverness cape, a double-breasted 
flowered satin waistcoat, slippers on his 
feet, and a handkerchief, very likely, tied 
over his hat." It was odd, no doubt, that 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 47 

a gentleman should dress in so unconven- 
tional a manner; but it was much odder 
that he should write to Mrs. Kemble a 
fortnight after the death of his brother, 
in 1879: "I say but little of my brother's 
death. We were very good friends, of very 
different ways of thinking ; I had not been 
within side his lawn gates (three miles off) 
these dozen years (no fault of his), and 
I did not enter them at his funeral — 
which you will very likely — and properly 

— think wrong." Only an eccentric man 
could have had occasion to say that ; and 
surely none but a very eccentric man would 
have said it. 

After leaving the University, — at which, 
by the way, he barely obtained his degree, 

— he went to Paris (where he had spent 
part of his boyhood), but stayed only a 
month or two; and on his return, having 
just passed his majority, he wrote to Allen, 
"Tell Thackeray that he is never to invite 
me to his house, as I intend never to go." 
He would rather go there than anywhere 
else, to be sure; but he has got "all sorts of 
Utopian ideas" about society into his head, 
and is ** going to become a great bear." 



48 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

In another man's mouth this might have 
been merely the expression of a passing 
whim; but whether FitzGerald meant the 
words seriously or not, they were pretty 
accurately fulfilled. His friends were of 
the noblest and truest, and his affection 
for them was of the warmest and stanchest, 
no man's more so; but he chose to live 
apart. 

"Why, sir," said Doctor Johnson to Bos- 
well, "you find no man, at all intellectual, 
who is willing to leave London. No, sir, 
when a man is tired of London, he is tired 
of life; for there is in London all that 
life can afford." And Boswell, of course, 
responded Amen. "I can talk twice as 
much in London as anywhere else," he 
remarked, with Boswellian simplicity. Pos- 
sibly FitzGerald was less "intellectual" 
than the great luminary and his satellite; 
or perhaps his intellectuality, such as it 
was, ran less exclusively to talk.^ At all 
events, he hated London as a place of 
residence; and even when he paid it a 

^ "Mr. Johnson, indeed, as he was a very talking man him- 
self, had an idea that nothing promoted happiness so much 
as conversation." — Mrs. Piozzi. 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 49 

visit, he was always in such feverish and 
ludicrous haste to get away that he was 
sure to leave his calls and errands no more 
than half done. ''I long to spread wing 
and fly into the kind clear air of the coun- 
try," he writes on one occasion of this 
sort. *'I see nobody in the streets half so 
handsome as Mr. Reynolds of our parish. 
... A great city is a deadly plague. . . . 
I get radishes to eat for breakfast of a 
morning; with them comes a savor of 
earth that brings all the delicious gardens 
of the world back into one's soul, and 
almost draws tears from one's eyes." In 
the mouth of a man of social position. 
University training, and independent for- 
tune, — who had lived in Paris, and was 
only thirty-five years old, — language like 
this bespeaks a born rustic and recluse, not 
to say a philosopher. And such FitzGerald 
was. 

Not that he craved a life in the wil- 
derness (being neither a John the Baptist 
nor a Rene), or had any extraordinary 
appreciation of the beauties of nature, so 
called. There was little of Wordsworth or 
of Thoreau in liis composition, or, if there 



50 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

was, it seldom found expression; but he 
detested crowds, was ill at ease in society, 
and having a bent toward homely solitude, 
was independent enough to follow it. It 
must seem queer to his old friends, he 
knew, but he preferred to "poke about in 
the country," using his books, as ladies do 
their knitting work, to pass the time away. 
Here is one of his days, a day of *' glorious 
sunshine:" — 

"All the morning I read about Nero in 
Tacitus, lying at full length on a bench 
in the garden: a nightingale singing, and 
some red anemones eyeing the sun man- 
fully not far off. A funny mixture all this : 
Nero, and the delicacy of spring; all very 
human, however. Then at half past one 
lunch on Cambridge cream cheese; then 
a ride over hill and dale: then spudding 
up some weeds from the grass: and then 
coming in, I sit down to write to you, my 
sister winding red worsted from the back of 
a chair, and the most delightful little girl 
in the world chattering incessantly. So 
runs the world away. You think I live in 
epicurean ease: but this happens to be a 
jolly day : one is n't always well, or toler- 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 51 

ably good, the weather is not always clear, 
nor nightingales singing, nor Tacitus full 
of pleasant atrocity. But such as life is, 
I believe I have got hold of a good end 
of it." 

Sometimes, it must be owned, he seemed 
not quite to approve of his own choice. 
"Men ought to have an ambition to stir 
and travel, and fill their heads and senses." 
So he says once, in an unusual mood of 
something like penitence. Even then, how- 
ever, he concludes, characteristically, "but 
so it is." There speaks the real Fitz Ger- 
ald. He is what he is, what he was made : 
a man without ambition; a man incap- 
able, from first to last, of taking himself 
seriously. He could never have said, as 
Tennyson did in his youth, and in effect 
for all his life, "I mean to be famous." If 
FitzGerald meant to be anything, — which 
is doubtful, — he meant to be obscure. 
The wonder of it all is that his life was 
beautiful, his spirit sweet, and his post- 
humous reward celebrity. 

He had little or none of the melancholy 
which so generally accompanies the union 
of exceptional powers with an enfeebled 



52 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

will and a comparative intellectual steril- 
ity. For one thing, he seems to have been 
spared the persecution of friends. As he 
expected little of himself, so they expected 
little of him. Unlike most men of a kin- 
dred sort — men of whom Gray and Amiel 
may stand as typical examples — he was 
left to go his own gait. Nobody wrote to 
him week after week, chiding him for his 
indolence and entreating him to produce 
a masterpiece. Happy man that he was, 
his youth had held out no promise of such 
production, and so his subsequent course 
was not clouded by the shadow of a pro- 
mise unfulfilled. If he was down in the 
country letting the moss grow over him, 
why, it was only "old Fitz," from whom 
nobody had ever looked for anything very 
different. So Thackeray, Tennyson, and 
the rest seem to have thought. And so 
thought the man himself. Life was worth 
living; oh yes; and he had "got hold of a 
good end of it;" but it was hardly a thing 
to disquiet one's self about. He set little 
value upon time or money, and corre- 
spondingly little upon his own gifts. There 
were always hours enough, and more than 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 53 

enough, for the nothings he had to do; his 
income was sufficient ; if it declined, — as 
it did, — it was no matter, he had only to 
reduce his expenditures; he never earned 
a penny, or considered the possibility of 
doing so; and withal, he was not made to 
write anything himself, but to please him- 
self with the writings of others. 

He was born of the school of Epicurus. 
His aim was to pass the time quietly; 
pitching his desires low, never overmuch 
in earnest, taking things as they came, — 

"Crowning the present, doubting of the rest;'* 

"not a hero, not even a philosopher, but 
a quiet, humane, and prudent man;" cul- 
tivating no enthusiasm, and aiming at no 
perfection. For fifty years he seems to 
have been a consistent vegetarian. Like 
the master of his school, — whom he sel- 
dom or never mentions, and of whom he 
perhaps as seldom thought, — he subsisted 
mostly on bread, and drank wine sparingly. 
Such a diet gave him lightness of spirits, 
he said, — a better thing, surely, than any 
tickling of the palate. 

With his liking for the country — in 



54 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

which, again, he was at one with his 
unrecognized master — ^ went a strong 
and persistent preference for the society 
of common people. For correspondents he 
had always scholars and men of note, the 
best of his time, and many of them; for 
daily associates he chose a sailor, a village 
clergyman's family, and an old woman 
or two. One of the greatest men he had 
ever known was his sailor, the captain of 
his yacht, — "niy captain," he calls him; 
''a gentleman of nature's grandest type," 
*'fit to be king of a kingdom as well as of 
a lugger." From Lowestoft he sends word 
to Laurence, the portrait painter, "I 
came here a few days ago, for the benefit 
of my old doctor, the sea, and my cap- 
tain's company, which is as good." One 
who knew him at the time of his intimacy 
with Bernard Barton, the Quaker poet 
(fortunate Quaker, with Lamb and Fitz- 
Gerald both writing letters to him!), de- 
scribes him as living in a little cottage at 
Boulge, a mile from the village, on the 
edge of his father's park, with no com- 
panion save a parrot and a Skye terrier. 
Such domestic duties as he did not attend 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 55 

to with his own hands were performed 
by an *' old-fashioned Suffolk woman." 
It was at this period that FitzGerald — 
then thirty-three years old — wrote to 
Barton, '*I believe I should like to live 
in a small house just outside a pleasant 
English town all the days of my life, mak- 
ing myself useful in a humble way, reading 
my books, and playing a rubber of whist 
at night." And it may be added that few 
men have ever come nearer to realizing 
their own dream. 

The Hall was mostly unoccupied in 
those days, though "the great lady" — 
Fitz Gerald's mother — would be there 
once in a while, and "would drive about 
in a coach of four black horses." So says 
the son of the village rector, who adds 
that FitzGerald "used to walk by himself, 
slowly, with a Skye terrier." The rector's 
son (a grandson, by the bye, of the poet 
Crabbe) was rather afraid of his "grave, 
middle-aged" neighbor. "He seemed a 
proud and very punctilious man . . . 
never very happy or light-hearted, though 
his conversation was most amusing some- 
times." On this last point we have also 



56 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

the testimony of his housekeeper, the 
"old-fashioned Suffolk woman" before 
mentioned. "So kind he was," she says; 
"not never one to make no obstacles. 
Such a joking gentleman he was, too!" 
All his dependents, indeed, speak of his 
kindness. A boy of the village, who was 
employed to read to him in the evening 
during his later years, told Mr. Groome * 
"how Mr. FitzGerald always gave him 
plenty of plum cake, and how they used 
to play piquet together. Only sometimes 
a tame mouse would come out and sit 
on the table, and then not a card must be 
dropped." "A pretty picture," Mr. Groome 
calls it. And so say we. 

As to the picture of FitzGerald's man- 
ner of life taken as a whole, it will be 
thought "pretty" or not according to the 
prepossessions of the reader. To many it 
will seem in all respects amiable, a refresh- 
ment to read about. Why should a man 
not be what he was made to be ? If he likes 
the heat of battle, let him fight, so that he 
does it fairly and with those who enjoy the 
same game. If another man cares not to 

^ Author of Two Suffolk Friends. 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 57 

be strenuous, but only to pass his day inno- 
cently, with pleasure to himself and harm 
to nobody else, — why, the world is big 
enough; let him be at liberty to sit in his 
corner and see the crowd go by. 

" * An hour we have,' thou saidst. 'Ah, waste it well."* 

And after all, the idler may reach the goal 
as soon as some who hurry. The race 
ought to be his who has trained hardest 
and run hardest; and it would be, per- 
haps, if the world were logically and pro- 
perly governed; but things being as they 
are, the experience of mankind seems to 
show a measure of truth in the old Hebrew 
paradox, "The race is not to the swift." 
Whether it is or not, the question had 
no particular interest for Fitz Gerald. His 
thoughts were not of winning a prize. His 
temperament had put him out of the com- 
petition. Temperament is fatality; and he 
was content to have it so. "It is not my 
talent," he said, "to take the tide at its 
flow." In his "predestined Plot of Dust 
and Soul" the vine of worldly prudence 
had never struck root. 

He was peculiar in other ways. He was 



58 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

constitutionally a skeptic. Many things 
which he had been taught to believe 
seemed to him insuflSciently established; 
improbable, if not incredible. The Master 
of Trinity wrote of him and of one of his 
dearest friends, "Two of the purest-living 
men among my intimates, Fitz Gerald and 
Spedding, were prisoners in Doubting 
Castle all their lives, or at least the last 
half of them." The language is euphemis- 
tic. Some calamities are so deeply felt that 
it is natural to veil allusion to them under 
metaphor. His friends, the Master means 
to say, had lost their faith in the tenets of 
the English Church. **A great problem," 
he pronounces it. And such it surely was : 
that two such men — "pure-living men!" 
— should doubt of matters which to so 
many bishops, priests, and deacons are the 
very certainties of existence. But so it is. 
Some men seem to be born for unbelief; 
and out of that number a few are so non- 
conformative, so perverse, or so honest 
as to live according to their lights. Con- 
cerning questions of this kind Fitz Gerald 
said little either in public or private. An 
unheroic, peace-loving man, who wishes to 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 59 

slip through the world unnoticed, natu- 
rally keeps some thoughts to himself, 
growing them, to borrow Keats 's phrase, 
in '*a philosophic back-garden." He rea- 
soned about them, it would seem, in a 
quiet spirit, patient, perhaps half indiffer- 
ent, being happily free from any corroding 
curiosity as to the origin and destiny of 
things. In that regard Nature had been 
good to him. What could not be known, 
he could get on without knowing. Why 
wear out one's teeth in champing an iron 
bit ? He spoke his mind, anonymously, 
in his translation of the Omar Khayyam 
quatrains, — which are perhaps rather 
more skeptical than the book of Ecclesias- 
tes, — and once, at least, he shut the lips of 
a man whom he thought a meddler. The 
rector of Woodbridge, we are told by Mr. 
Groome, called on FitzGerald to express 
his regret at never seeing him at church. 
We may surmise that the "regret" was 
expressed in a rather lofty and dog- 
matic tone, a tone not unnatural, surely, in 
the case of one clotlied with supernatural 
authority. "wSir," said FitzGerald, whose 
fondness for clergymen's society was one 



60 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

of his marked characteristics, "you might 
have conceived that a man has not come 
to my years without thinking much of 
these things. I beheve I may say that I 
have reflected on them fully as much as 
yourself. You need not repeat this visit." 
His correspondence, by which mainly 
the world knows him, is full of interesting 
revelations. His whims and foibles, and 
his own gentle amusement over them; his 
bookish likes and dislikes, one as hearty 
as the other; his affection for his friends, 
whose weak points he could sometimes 
lay a pretty sharp finger on, notwithstand- 
ing, frankness being almost always one of 
an odd man's virtues; his delight in the 
sea and in his garden ("Don't you love 
the oleander ? I rather worship mine," he 
writes to Mrs. Kemble) ; his pottering over 
translations from the Spanish, the Per- 
sian, and the Greek ("all very well; only 
very little affairs:" he feels "ashamed" 
when his friend Thompson inquires about 
them); his music, wherein his taste was 
simple but difficult (he played without 
technique and sang without a voice, loving 
to " recollect some of ' Fidelio ' on the piano- 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 61 

forte," and counting it more enjoyable 
*'to perform in one's head one of Handel's 
choruses" than to hear most Exeter Hall 
performances), — all these things, and 
many more, come out in his letters, which 
are never anything but letters, written to 
please his friends, — and himself, — with 
no thought of anything beyond that. In 
them we see his life passing. He is trifling 
it away ; but no matter. He might do more 
with it, perhaps; but cui bono? At the 
end of his summer touring he writes: "A 
little Bedfordshire — a little Northamp- 
tonshire — a little more folding of the 
hands — the same faces — the same fields 
— the same thoughts occurring at the same 
turns of road — this is all I have to tell of; 
nothing at all added — but the summer 
gone. My garden is covered with yellow 
and brown leaves; and a man is digging 
up the garden beds before my window, and 
will plant some roots and bulbs for next 
year. My parsons come and smoke with 
me." What age does the reader give to the 
author of this paragraph, so full of after- 
noon shadows ? He was thirty-five. 

But if he was an idle fellow, careful for 



62 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

nothing, poor in spirit, contented to be 
the hindmost, devil or no devil, "reading 
a little, dreaming a little, playing a little, 
smoking a little," doing whatever he did 
"a little," he was not without a kind of 
faith in his own capacity. He knew, or 
believed that he knew, what he was good 
for. "I am a man of taste," he said more 
than once. If he could not write poetry, — 
taste being only ''the feminine of genius," 
— he knew it when he saw it. He read 
books with his own eyes, not haK so com- 
mon or easy a trick as many would suppose. 
And having read a book in that uncon- 
ventional way, it was by no means to be 
taken for granted that he would like it, 
though its author might be one of his dear- 
est friends. And if he failed to like it, he 
seldom failed to say so. If he commended 
a book, — a new book, that is, — it was 
apt to be with a mixture of criticism. He 
cared little or nothing for flattery himself, 
and w^as magnanimous enough to assume 
(an enormous assumption) that literary 
workers in general were equally high- 
minded. If one friend sends another a 
book of his own writing, the best course 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 63 

for the second man is merely to acknow- 
ledge its receipt, unless he has some fault 
to indicate! This he sets down quite sim- 
ply as his belief and ordinary practice. It 
was the more comfortable way for both 
parties, he thought. Perhaps he thought, 
too, that it was the more conducive to 
habits of truthfulness. (Others might con- 
clude that its most immediate and perma- 
nent effect would be to discourage the 
circulation of authors' copies.) If he con- 
sidered Mr. Lowell's odes to lack wings, 
he told Mr. Lowell so. If his taste was 
offended by the style of the "Moosehead 
Journal" ('*too clever by half"), he told 
Mr. Lowell of that also. Why not ? Great 
men did not resent truth-speaking, but 
were thankful for it. He was full of won- 
der and sorrow when he saw Tennyson — 
who had stopped at Woodbridge for a day 
to visit him, after a separation of twenty 
years — fretted by the '* Quarterly's" un- 
favorable comments. If Tennyson had 
lived an active life, like Scott and Shake- 
speare, he would have done more and 
talked about it less. He recalls Scott's 
saying to Lockhart, *'You know that I 



64 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

don't care a curse about what I write;" 
and he believed that it was not far other- 
wise with Shakespeare. *'Even old Words- 
worth, wrapt up in his mountain mists, 
and proud as he was, was above all this 
vain disquietude." If a man is not greater 
than the greatest things he does, the less 
said about him and them the better. His 
work should drop from him like fruit from 
a tree. Henceforth let the world look after 
it, if it is worth looking after. The tree 
should have other business. 

To say that FitzGerald lived in accord- 
ance with his own doctrine in this regard 
is to say that he lived like a man of dignity 
and high self-respect, — like an old-fash- 
ioned man, — sometimes called a gentle- 
man, — one is tempted to say : a man 
who would cut off his hand sooner than 
solicit a vote, or angle for a compliment, or 
whimper over a criticism. Old-fashioned 
he certainly was, — old-fashioned and con- 
servative. He liked old books, old music, 
old places, old friends. The adjective is 
constantly on the point of his pen as a 
word of endearment: "old Alfred," "old 
Thackeray," "old Spedding " — " dear old 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 65 

Jem." So, writing to Mrs. Kemble from 
the seacoast, he says, '*Why it happens 
that I so often write to you from here, I 
scarce know; only that one comes with 
few books, perhaps, and the sea somehow 
talks to one of old things;" which was not 
an unhandsome tribute to an old friend, 
though the old friend was a woman. He 
was a "little Englander," as the word 
is now. For a nation, as for an individual, 
great estates were, he thought, more a 
trouble than a blessing. " Once more I say, 
would we were a little, peaceful, unambi- 
tious, trading nation, like — the Dutch!" 
Men of taste are naturally conservatives 
and moderates. 

Not that Fitz Gerald was too nice for 
the world he lived in. His carelessness 
about dress, his contentment with mean 
lodgings, and his liking for the plainest 
and homeliest service and companionship 
have already been touched upon. Even 
in the matter of reading, while he held 
pretty strictly to the classics (not meaning 
the Greek and the Latin in particular), he 
cherished one bit of freakishness : a great 
fondness for the *' Newgate Calendar " ! "I 



66 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

don't ever wish to see and hear these 
things tried; but when they are in print, 
I like to sit in court then, and see the 
judges, counsel, prisoners, crowd; hear 
the lawyers' objections, the murmur in 
the court, etc." So he writes to his friend 
Allen, at fifty-six. And the passion re- 
mained with him, as most things do that 
are part of a man's life at fifty odd; for 
fourteen years later he writes to Mrs. 
Kemble, as of a matter well understood 
among his friends: "I like, you know, a 
good murder; but in its place — 

' The charge is prepared ; the lawyers are met — 
The judges all ranged, a terrible show.'" * 

It may be that on this point he was not 
so very eccentric. Certainly our newspa- 
per editors give the general public credit 
for having a reasonably good appetite 
for capital cases. And Fitz Gerald's weak- 
ness — if it was a weakness — is curiously 
matched by what we are told of another 
eminent translator, the man to whom we 

^ In a letter to his friend Pollock he says : " To-morrow I am 
going to one of my great treats, namely, the Assizes at Ipswich : 
where I shall see little Voltaire Jervis, and old Parke, who I 
trust will have the gout, he bears it so Christianly." 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 67 

owe our English Plato and Thucydides. 
A shy student, Mr. Tollemache says, hap- 
pened to sit next to Jowett at dinner, and 
having hard work to maintain the con- 
versation, as such men often had, in Jow- 
ett's unresponsive company, stumbled upon 
the subject of murder. "To his surprise 
the Master rose to the bait, mentioned some 
causes celebres, and dropped all formal- 
ity." Naturally the young Oxonian was sur- 
prised; but when he spoke of the incident 
to a man who knew the Master of Balliol 
better than he, the latter said, "If you can 
get Jowett to talk of murders, he will go 
off like a house on fire." 

There is something of the savage an- 
cestor in all of us. We are wrong, per- 
haps, to feel astonished that men of the 
cloister, studious men, never called upon 
to kill so much as a superfluous kitten, 
should find an agreeable excitement in a 
dramatic, second-hand tickling of certain 
half-dormant sensibilities. If it is ghastly 
good fun to read of murder in Scott or Du- 
mas, why not in the " Newgate Calendar " ? 
Who knows how many tender-hearted, 
white-handed scholars would enjoy the 



68 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

spectacle of a prize fight, if only the amuse- 
ment were a few shades more respect- 
able in the public eye ? And how long is it 
since we saw college men falling over one 
another in a mad rush to enlist for battle, 
every one in a fever of anxiety lest he 
should be too late, and so be debarred 
from the unusual pleasure of killing and 
being killed ? 

No! When FitzGerald called himself 
a man of taste, he did not mean to confess 
himself an intellectual prig, with a school- 
master's eye for petty failings and a super- 
refined disrelish for everything short of 
perfection. As for perfection, indeed, he 
did not much expect it, whether in human 
beings or in their works; and when he 
found it, he did not always like it. He 
thought some other things were better. 
He preferred genius to art: that is to say, 
he enjoyed high qualities, though accom- 
panied by defects, better than lower quali- 
ties cultivated to a state of flawlessness. 
''The grandest things," he believed, "do 
not depend on delicate finish." Thus in 
poetry he admired a score of Beranger's 
almost perfect songs, but would have given 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 69 

them all for a score of Burns's couplets, 
stanzas, or single lines scattered among 
''his quite imperfect lyrics." Burns had so 
much more genius, so much more inspi- 
ration. In the same way FitzGerald had 
little patience with some perfect novels, — 
with Miss Austen's, to be more specific. 
They were perfect; yes, he had no thought 
of denying that; but they did not interest 
him. Even Trollope's were more to his 
mind, with all their caricature and care- 
lessness. Miss Austen is ''capital as far as 
she goes; but she never goes out of the 
parlor." " If Magnus Troil, or Jack Bunce, 
or even one of Fielding's brutes, would 
but dash in upon the gentility and swear a 
round oath or two ! " Cowell, he adds, reads 
Miss Austen at night after his Sanskrit 
studies. "It composes him, like gruel." 

There is no doubt of it, FitzGerald 
was old-fashioned, especially as a novel- 
reader. He doted on Clarissa Harlowe, 
"that wonderful and aggravating Clarissa 
Harlowe," and he read Dickens. "A little 
Shakespeare — a cockney Shakespeare, if 
you will ... a piece of pure genius." So 
he breaks out after a chapter of Copper- 



70 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

field. "I have been sunning myself in 
Dickens," he says at another time. A 
pretty compHment that, for any man. It 
is good to hear his praise of Scott. Even 
those who can no longer abide that ro- 
mancer themselves — for there are such, 
unaccountable as the fact may seem to 
happier men — may well feel a touch of 
warmth at FitzGerald's fire. He read fic- 
tion — as he read everything else — for 
pleasure; and in English no other fiction 
pleased him so much, taking the years 
together, as Sir Walter's. In 1871 he has 
been reading " The Pirate " again. He 
knows it is not one of the best, but he is 
glad to find how much he likes it; nay, 
that is below the mark, how he "wonders 
and delights in it." "With all its faults, 
often mere carelessness, what a broad 
Shakespearean daylight over it all, and all 
with no effort." He finished it with sad- 
ness, thinking he might never read it again. 
And as he was always reading Scott, 
and as often praising him, so he was always 
reading and praising Don Quixote. In 
1867 he has been on his yacht. "I have 
had Don Quixote, Boccaccio, and my 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 71 

dear Sophocles (once more) for company 
on board: the first of these so dehghtful 
that I got to love the very dictionary in 
which I had to look out the words : yes, and 
often the same words over and over again. 
The book really seemed to me the most 
delightful of all books : Boccaccio delight- 
ful too, but millions of miles behind; in 
fact, a whole planet away." In 1876 his 
mind is the same. *'I have taken refuge 
from the Eastern Question in Boccaccio. 
. . . I suppose one must read this in 
Italian as my dear Don in Spanish: the 
language of each fitting the subject 'like a 
glove.' But there is nothing to come up to 
the Don and his Man." 

Bookishness of this affectionate, enthu- 
siastic sort, constantly recurring, would be 
enough of itself to give the letters a wel- 
come ; for every reader loves to hear books 
praised at first hand, the man rather than 
the critic speaking, even though they be 
such as lie outside the too narrow limits 
of his own appreciation. Happiness is con- 
tagious, and it is better than nothing, as 
was said just now, to warm one's self at 
another's fire. 



n FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

Fitz Gerald's relations with books (with 
his books) were those of a lover. He can 
never say all he feels about Virgil. Horace 
he is unable to care about, in spite of his 
good sense, elegance, and occasional force. 
*'He never made my eyes wet as Virgil 
does." When he reads " Comus " and '' Ly- 
cidas," even at seventy, it is "with wonder 
and a sort of awe." Surely he was a man of 
taste; born to be an appreciator of other 
men's good work. 

And because he was a man of taste, — 
or partly for that reason, — his praise, 
even in its warmest and most personal 
expression (like the words just quoted 
about Virgil), has not only no taint of 
affectation, but no suggestion of senti- 
mentality. With him, as with all healthy 
souls, feeling was a matter of moments; 
it came in jets, not in a stream; and its 
outgiving was always with a note of un- 
consciousness,* of deep and absolute sin- 
cerity. His life, inward and outward, was 
pitched in a low key. He never com- 
plained, let what would happen; he had 
too much of ''old Omar's consolation" 
for that (too much fatalism, that is); his 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 73 

own weaknesses, even, he took as they 
were ; why regret what was past mending ? 
but his prevaihng mood was anything but 
rhapsodical. All the more effective, there- 
fore, are the outbursts — frequent, but 
never more than a sentence or two together 
— in which he utters himself touching 
those best of all companions, his ''friends 
on the shelf." 

The most striking instance of this affec- 
tionate absorption, this falling in love with 
a book, as one cannot help calling it, oc- 
curred in the last decade of his life. In the 
summer of 1875, when his health seemed 
to be failing, and he was beginning, as he 
said, to "smell the ground," he suddenly 
became enamored of Madame de Sevigne. 
Till then, in spite of his favorite Sainte- 
Beuve, he had kept aloof from her, repelled 
by her perpetual harping on her daughter. 
Now he finds that "it is all genuine, and 
the same intense feeling expressed in a 
hundred natural yet graceful ways; and 
beside all this such good sense, good feel- 
ing, humor, love of books and country 
life, as makes her certainly the queen of 
all letter- writers." 



74 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

The next spring he wishes he had the 
"Go" in him; he would visit his dear 
Sevigne's Rochers, as he would Abbotsford 
and Stratford. The '' fine creature," much 
more alive to him than most friends, has 
been his companion at the seashore. She 
now occupies Montaigne's place, and 
worthily; "she herself a lover of Mon- 
taigne, and with a spice of his free thought 
and speech in her." He sometimes laments 
not having known her before; but reflects 
that "perhaps such an acquaintance comes 
in best to cheer one toward the end." 
Henceforward, year after year, in spring 
especially, he talks of the dear lady's 
charms. ''My blessed Sevigne," "my dear 
old Sevigne," he calls her; "welcome as 
the flowers of May." Like the best of 
Scott's characters, she is real and present 
to him. "When my oracle last night was 
reading to me of Dandie Dinmont's blessed 
visit to Bertram in Portanferry gaol, I said 
— *I know it's Dandie, and I shouldn't 
be at all surprised to see him come into this 
room.' No — no more than — Madame de 
Sevigne ! I suppose it is scarce right to live 
so among shadows ; but after near seventy 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 75 

years so passed, que voulez-vousf One 
thinks of what Emerson said, that there is 
creative reading as well as creative writing. 
As is true of all readers, every kind 
of human capacity being limited, Fitz- 
Gerald found many likely books lying 
mysteriously outside the range of his 
sympathies. He loved Longfellow (and 
so "could not call him Mister") and ad- 
mired Emerson (with qualifications — "I 
don't like the ' Humble Bee,' and won't 
like the ' Humble Bee ' ") ; and he delighted 
in Lowell (the critical essays), and "rather 
loved" Holmes; but he "could never take 
to that man of true genius, Hawthorne." 
"I will have another shot," he said. But 
it was useless. He confesses his failure to 
Professor Norton. "I feel sure the fault 
must be mine, as I feel about Goethe, who 
is yet a sealed book to me." He expects 
to "die ungoethed, so far as poetry goes." 
He supposes there is a screw loose in him 
on this point. Again he writes: "I have 
failed in another attempt at ' Gil Bias.' I 
believe I see its easy grace, humor, etc. 
But it is (like La Fontaine) too thin a wine 
for me : all sparkling with little adventures, 



76 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

but no one to care about; no color, no 
breadth, like my dear Don, whom I shall 
return to forthwith." Happy reader, who 
could give so pretty a reason for the want 
of faith that was in him. If he lacked pa- 
tience to write formal criticism, he had the 
neatest kind of knack at critical obiter dicta. 
Books were his best friends; or, if that 
be too much to say, they were the ones 
that he liked best to have about him. As 
for human intimates, — well, it is hard 
to know how to express it, but he seemed, 
especially as he grew older, not to crave 
very much of their society. He loved to 
wTite to them, — not too often, lest they 
should be troubled about replying, — but 
he would never visit them; and what is 
stranger, he cared little, nay, he almost 
dreaded, to have them visit him. His 
house he devoted to his nieces, for such 
part of the year as they chose to occupy it, 
reserving but one room to himself. This 
serves for "parlor, bedroom and all," he 
tells Mrs. Kemble; "which I really pre- 
fer, as it reminds me of the cabin of my 
dear little ship — mine no more." Still the 
house is large enough. If any of his friends, 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 77 

Tennyson, Spedding, Carlyle, Mr. Lowell, 
Mr. Norton, or who not, should happen 
to be in the neighborhood, he would be 
delighted, truly delighted, to see them; 
but none of them must ever undertake the 
journey on purpose. He could n't render 
it worth their while, and it would really 
make him unhappy. He was never in 
danger of forgetting them, and he had 
no fear of their forgetting him. If they 
suffered, he suffered with them. If one 
of them died, he wrote of him in the tender- 
est and most poignant strain. 

In January, 1864, all his letters are full 
of Thackeray, whose death had occurred 
on the day before Christmas. He sits 
"moping about him," reading his books 
and the few of his letters that he has pre- 
served. He writes to Laurence: "I am 
surprised almost to find how much I am 
thinking of him : so little as I had seen him 
for the last ten years ; not once for the last 
five. I had been told — by you, for one — 
that he was spoiled. I am glad therefore 
that I have scarce seen him since he was 
* old Thackeray.' I keep reading his ' New- 
comes ' of nights, and as it were hear him 



78 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

saying so much of it; and it seems to me 
as if he might be coming up my stairs, and 
about to come (singing) into my room, as 
in old Charlotte Street thirty years ago." ^ 
Hear him again as he writes of Sped- 
ding, the wisest man he has ever known, 
*'a Socrates in life and in death," who has 
been run over by a cab in London, and 
is dying at the hospital: "My dear old 
Spedding, though I have not seen him 
these twenty years and more, and probably 
should never see him again; but he lives, 
his old self, in my heart of hearts; and all 
I hear of him does but embellish the recol- 
lection of him, if it could be embellished; 
for he is but the same that he was from a 
boy, all that is best in heart and head, a 
man that would be incredible had one not 
known him." And when all is over, and 
Laurence sends him tidings of the event, 
this is his answer: "It was very, very good 
of you to think of writing to me at all on 

^ In connection with which it is good to remember that when 
Thackeray, not long before he died, was asked by his daughter 
which of his old friends he had loved most, he replied, "Why, 
dear old Fitz, to be sure." After FitzGerald's death Tennyson 
wrote of him: "I had no truer friend: he was one of the kind- 
liest of men, and I have never known one of so fine and delicate 
a wit." 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 79 

this occasion: much more, writing to me 
so fully, almost more fully than I dared at 
first to read: though all so delicately and 
as you always write. It is over! I shall not 
write about it. He was all you say." How 
perfect ! And how it goes to the quick ! 

Not for want of heart, surely, did such 
a man choose the companionship of books 
rather than of his fellows. He was born 
to be a solitary, or believed that he was; 
at all events, it was too late now for him 
to be anything else. Whether nature or 
he had made his bed, it was made, and 
henceforth }\e must lie in it. "Twenty 
years' solitude," he says to Mrs. Kemble, 
"makes me very shy." And he writes to 
Sir Frederick Pollock, who has proposed 
to visit him, that he feels nervous at the 
prospect of meeting old friends, "after all 
these years." He fears they will not find 
him in person what he is by letter. Every 
recluse knows that trouble. With books 
it was another story. In their presence he 
felt no misgivings, no palsying diffidence. 
They would never expect of him what he 
could not render, nor find him altered 
from his old self. If he happened to be 



80 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

awkward or dull, as he often was, they 
would never know it. And really, with 
them on his shelves, and with his habit of 
living by himself, he did not need intel- 
lectual society, — just a few commonplace, 
kindly, more or less sensible bodies to 
speak with in a neighborly way about the 
weather, the crops, or the day's events, and 
to play cards with of an evening. He was 
one of the fortunates — or unfortunates — 
who have a "talent for dullness." The 
word is his own. "I really do like to sit in 
this doleful place with a good fire, a cat and 
dog on the rug, and an old woman in the 
kitchen." He reveled in the pleasures of 
memory. He loved his friends as they 
were years ago, — "old Thackeray," "old 
Jem," "old Alfred," — and only hoped 
they would love him in the same manner. 
So his letters are full of the books he 
has been reading, rather than of the people 
he has been talking with. But what of his 
own books, especially of the one that has 
made him famous.? About that, it must 
be said at once, the correspondence tells 
comparatively little. His Persian studies 
were only an episode in his life, interesting 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 81 

enough at the time, but not a continuous 
passion, like, for instance, his reading of 
Crabbe, and his long persisted in — never 
relinquished — attempt to secure for that 
half -forgotten Suffolk poet the honor right- 
fully belonging to him. Concerning that 
pious attempt, as concerning a possible 
republication of some of his translations 
from the Spanish and the Greek, he left 
directions with his literary executor; but 
not a word about Omar Khayyam. 

The whole Persian business, indeed, if 
one may speak of it so, appears to have been 
largely a matter of friendship, or at least 
to have been begun as such. Cowell had 
become absorbed in that language, and 
enticed his old Spanish pupil to follow 
him. The first mention of the subject 
to be found in the published letters occurs 
in 1853. FitzGerald has ordered East- 
wick's "Gulistan:" "for I believe I shall 
potter out so much Persian." Two months 
afterward he writes to Frederic Tennyson : 
*'I amuse myself with poking out some 
Persian which E. Cowell would inaugurate 
me with. I go on with it because it is a 
point in common with him, and enables 



S2 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

us to study a little together." Friendly 
feeling has served the world many a good 
turn, but rarely a better one than this. 

Three or four years later comes the 
first reference to Omar. "Old Omar," 
he says, ''rings like true metal." Now he 
is translating the quatrains, though he has 
little to say about them. He finds it amus- 
ing to "take what liberties he likes with 
these Persians," who, he thinks, are not 
poets enough to frighten one from so doing. 
On a 1st of July he writes: "June over! 
A thing I think of with Omar-like sorrow." 
Then he is preparing to send some of the 
more innocent of the quatrains to '' Eraser's 
Magazine," the editor of which has asked 
him for a contribution. He has begun to 
look upon Omar as rather more his pro- 
perty than Cowell's. "He and I are more 
akin, are we not .?" he writes to his teacher. 
"You see all his beauty, but you don't feel 
with him in some respects as I do." He 
is taking all pains, not for literalness, but 
to make the thing live. It must live ; if not 
with Omar's life, why, then, with the trans- 
lator's. And live it did, and does, — 

"The rose of Iran on an English slock." 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 83 

The Fraser story is well known, — a 
classical example of the rejection of a fu- 
ture classic. The editor took the manu- 
script, but kept it in its pigeonhole (''Thou 
knowest not which shall prosper" being as 
true a text for editors as for other men — 
"Sir," said Doctor Johnson, "a fallible 
being will fail somewhere"), and at last 
FitzGerald asked it back, added some- 
thing to it, and printed it anonymously. 
This was in 1859. He gave one copy to 
Cowell (who "was naturally alarmed at it; 
he being a very religious man"), one copy 
to George Borrow, and one — a good 
while afterward — to "old Donne." Some 
copies he kept for himself. The remainder, 
two hundred, more or less, he presented 
to Mr. Quaritch, who had printed them 
for him, and who worked them off upon 
his customers, as best he could, mostly at 
two cents apiece. 

In the course of the next few years three 
other editions were printed — all anony- 
mously — for the sake of alterations and 
additions (a man of taste is sure to be a 
patient reviser), but there is next to nothing 
about them in the letters. No one cares 



84 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

for such things, the translator says. He 
hardly knows why he prints them, only 
that he likes to make an end of the matter. 
So he writes to Co well. As for the rest of 
his correspondents, they are more likely 
to be interested in other things, — his 
garden, his boat, his reading. By 1863 he 
is pretty well tired of everything Persian. 
"Oh dear," he says to his teacher, "when 
I look at Homer, Dante and Virgil, iEs- 
chylus, Shakespeare, etc., those Orientals 
look — silly! Don't resent my saying so. 
Don't they ? " An English masterpiece had 
been made, but neither the maker of it 
nor any one else had yet suspected the fact. 
The merits of the work seem to have 
been first publicly recognized in 1869 by 
Mr. Charles Eliot Norton, in an article 
contributed to the '' North American Re- 
view." "The work of a poet inspired by 
the work of a poet," he pronounces it; 
"not a copy, but a reproduction, not a 
translation, but the redelivery of a poetic 
inspiration." "There is probably nothing 
in the mass of English translations or 
reproductions of the poetry of the East 
to be compared with this little volume in 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 85 

point of value as English poetry. In the 
strength of rhythmical structure, in force 
of expression, in musical modulation, and 
in mastery of language, the external charac- 
ter of the verse corresponds with the still 
rarer qualities of imagination and of spirit- 
ual discernment which it displays." 

It would be pleasant to know how 
appreciation of this kind, coming unex- 
pectedly from a stranger over seas, af- 
fected the still anonymous, obscurity- 
loving translator; but if he ever read it, 
or, having read it, said anything about it, 
the letters make no sign. He and his work 
were still comfortably obscure. His old 
friend Carlyle heard not a word about 
the matter till 1873, when Professor Nor- 
ton, who meanwhile had somehow dis- 
covered the name of the man he had been 
praising, mentioned the poem to him, and 
insisted upon giving him a copy. Carlyle, 
much pleased, at once wrote to FitzGerald 
a letter which was undoubtedly meant to 
be very kind and handsome, but which, 
read in the light of the present, sounds a 
little perfunctory, and even a bit patroniz- 
ing. The translation, he says, is a "meri- 



86 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

torious and successful performance." We 
can almost fancy that we are listening to a 
good-natured but truthful man who feels 
it his duty to speak well of a pretty good 
composition written by a fairly bright gram- 
mar school boy. 

It was all one to Fitz Gerald. Perhaps 
he thought the compliment as good as he 
deserved. He was getting old — as he had 
been doing for the last twenty-five years. 
Persian poetry was little or nothing to him 
now — "a ten years' dream." The fruit 
had dropped from the tree; let the earth 
care for it. So he returns to his Crabbe, to 
Sainte-Beuve, to Madame de Sevigne, to 
Don Quixote, to Wesley's Journal, and 
the rest. Such little time as he has to live, 
he will live quietly. And ten years after- 
ward, when he died, — suddenly, as he 
had always hoped, — some one put on 
his gravestone that most Omaric of Scrip- 
ture texts, *'It is He that hath made us, 
and not we ourselves." Perhaps the words 
were of his own choosing. Certainly no 
others could have suited him so well. If 
he had been eccentric, idle, unambitious, 
ease-loving, incapable, a pitcher ''leaning 



EDWARD FITZGERALD 87 

all awry," he had been what the Potter 
made him. 

"The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes, 
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes; 

And He that tossed you down into the Field, 
He knows about it all — He knows — HE knows! " 

Since his death his fame has increased 
mightily. All the world reads Omar Khay- 
yam and praises FitzGerald. ''His strange 
genius, so fitfully and coyly revealed, has 
given a new quality to English verse, al- 
most all recent manifestations of which it 
pervades." So says one of the later his- 
torians of our nineteenth century liter- 
ature. And the man himself thought he 
had done nothing! Truly the race is not 
to the swift. 

"Behold the Grace of Allah comes and goes 
As to Itself is good: and no one knows 
Which way it turns: in that mysterious Court 
Not he most finds who furthest travels for \ 
For one may crawl upon his knees Life-long, 
And yet may never reach, or all go wrong: 
Another just arriving at the Place 
He toiled for, and — the Door shut in his Face: 
Whereas Another, scarcely gone a Stride, 
And suddenly — Behold he is inside!" 



THOREAU 



THOREAU 

"Whoever will do his own work aright will find that his first 
lesson is to know what he is, and that which is proper to himself; 
and whoever rightly understands himself will never mistake 
another man's work for his own, but will love and improve 
himself above all other things, will refuse superfluous employ- 
ments, and reject all unprofitable thoughts and propositions." 

Montaigne. 

It lay at the root of Thoreau's peculiarity 
that he insisted upon being himself. Hav- 
ing certain opinions, he held them; hav- 
ing certain tastes, he encouraged them; 
having a certain faculty, he made the most 
of it: all of which, natural and reasonable 
as it may sound, is as far as possible from 
what is expected of the average citizen, 
who may be almost anything he will, to be 
sure, if he will first observe the golden rule 
of good society, to be "like other folks." 
Society is still a kind of self-constituted 
militia, a mutual protective association, — 
an army, in short; and in an army, as 
everybody knows, the first duty of man is 
to keep step. 



92 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

What made matters worse in Thoreau's 
case was, that his tastes and opinions, on 
which he so stoutly insisted, were in them- 
selves far out of the common. Not only 
would he be himself, enough, under present 
conditions, to make almost any man an 
oddity, but the "himself" was essentially 
a very queer person. He liked solitude; in 
other words, he liked to think. He loved 
the society of trees and all manner of grow- 
ing things. He found fellowship in them, 
they were of his kin ; which is not at all the 
same as to say that he enjoyed looking at 
them as objects of beauty. He lived in a 
world of his own, a world of ideas, and was 
strangely indifferent to much that other men 
found absorbing. He could get along with- 
out a daily newspaper, but not without a 
daily walk. He spent hours and hours of 
honest daylight in what looked for all the 
world like idleness; and he did it indus- 
triously and on principle. He was more 
anxious to live well — according to an in- 
ward standard of his own — than to lodge 
well, or to dress well, or to stand well with 
his townsmen. A good name, even, was 
relatively unimportant. He found easy sun- 



THOREAU 93 

dry New Testament scriptures which the 
church would still be stumbling over, only 
that it has long since worn a smooth path 
round them. 

He set a low value on money. It might 
be of service to him, he once confessed, 
underscoring the doubt, but in general 
he accepted poverty as the better part. 
"We are often reminded," he said, "that 
if there were bestowed on us the wealth of 
Croesus, our aims must still be the same, 
and our means essentially the same." 
Houses and lands, even, as he considered 
them, were often no better than incum- 
brances. Some of his well-to-do, highly 
respected, self-satisfied neighbors were as 
good as in prison, he thought. In what 
sense were men to be called free, if their 
"property" had put them under bonds 
to stay in such and such a place and do 
only such and such things ? Life was more 
than meat, as he reckoned, and having 
trained himself to "strict business habits" 
(his own words), he did not believe in 
swapping a better thing for a poorer one. 
To him it was amazing that hard-headed, 
sensible men should stand at a desk the 



94 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

greater part of their days, and "glimmer 
and rust, and finally go out there." "If 
they know anything," he exclaimed, "what 
under the sun do they do that for?" He 
speaks as if the question were unanswer- 
able ; but no doubt many readers will find 
it easy enough, the only real difiiculty being 
a deplorable scarcity of desks. For Tho- 
reau's part, at any rate, other men might 
save dollars if they would; he^ meant to 
save his soul. It should not glimmer and 
rust and go out, if a manly endeavor was 
good for anything. And he saved it. To 
the end he kept it alive; and though he 
died young, he lived a long life and did a 
long life's work, and what is more to the 
present purpose, he left behind him a long 
memory. 

His economies, which were so many 
and so rigorous, were worthy of a man. 
In kind, they were such as any man must 
practice who, having a task assigned him, 
is set upon doing it. If the river is to run 
the mill, it must contract itself. The law 
is general. To make sure of the best we 
must put away not only whatever is bad, 
but many things that of themselves are 



THOREAU 95 

good, — a right hand, if need be, or a 
right eye, said one of old. For the artist, 
indeed, as for the saint, — for all seekers 
after perfection, that is, — the good and 
the best are often the most uncompromis- 
ing of opposites, by no means to be enter- 
tained under the same roof. Manage it as 
we will, to receive one is to dismiss the other. 
Rightly considered, Thoreau's singu- 
larity consisted, not in his lodging in a 
cabin, nor in his wearing coarse clothes, 
nor in his non-observance of so-called 
social amenities, nor even in his passion 
for the wild, but in his view of the world 
and of his own place in it. He was a poet- 
naturalist, an idealist, an individualist, a 
transcendental philosopher, what you will; 
but first of all he was a prophet. "I am 
the voice of one crying in the wilderness," 
he might have said; and the locusts and 
wild honey followed as things of course. 
It followed, also, that the fathers neglected 
him, — stoning having gone out of fashion, 
— and the children garnish his sepulchre. 
A prophet is a very wortliy person — after 
he is dead. Then come biographies, eulo- 
gies, and new^editions of his works, inchid- 



96 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

ing his journals and private letters. Fame 
is a plant that blossoms on graves; as a 
manual of such botany might say, **a late- 
flowering perennial, nowhere common, to 
be looked for in old cemeteries." 

A prophet, a writer, a student of nature : 
this was Thoreau, and the three were one. 

He preached faith, simplicity, devo- 
tion to the ideal; and with all a prophet's 
freedom he denounced everything antag- 
onistic to these. He was not one of those 
nice people who are contented to speak 
handsomely of God and say nothing about 
the devil. It was not in his nature to halt 
between two opinions. He could always 
say yes or no — especially no. As was said 
of Pascal, there were no middle terms in 
his philosophy. 

Withal, no man was more of a believer 
and less of a skeptic. Faith and hope, " in- 
finite expectation," were his daily breath. 
Charity was his, also, but less conspicu- 
ously, and after a pattern of his own, 
philanthropy, as he saw it practiced, being 
one of his prime aversions. He knew not 
the meaning of pessimism. The world was 
good. "I am grateful for what I am and 



THOREAU 97 

have. My thanksgiving is perpetual." To 
the final hour existence was a boon to him. 
*'For joy I could embrace the earth," 
he declared, though he seldom indulged 
himself in emotional expression; '*I shall 
delight to be buried in it." '*It was not 
possible to be sad in his presence," said 
his sister, speaking of his last illness. His 
may have been "a solitary and critical 
way of living," to quote Emerson's careful 
phrase, but in his work there is little trace of 
anything morbid or unwholesome. Some 
who might hesitate to rank themselves 
among his disciples keep by them a copy of 
" Walden," or the " Week," to dip into for 
refreshment and invigoration when life runs 
low and desire begins to fail. Readers of 
this kind please him better, we may guess, 
if he knows of them, than those who skim 
his pages for the natural history and the 
scenery. Such is the fate of prophets. The 
fulminations and entreaties of Isaiah are 
now highly recommended as specimens of 
Oriental belles-lettres. Yet worse things may 
befall a man than to be partially appreci- 
ated. As Thoreau himself said: *'It is the 
characteristic of great poems that they will 



98 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

yield of their sense in due proportion to the 
hasty and the dehberate reader. To the 
practical they will be common sense, and 
to the wise wisdom; as either the traveler 
may wet his lips, or an army may fill its 
water-casks at a full stream." His own was 
hardly a "full stream," perhaps; a moun- 
tain brook rather than one of the world's 
rivers ; clear, cold, running from the spring, 
untainted by the swamp ; less majestic than 
the Amazons, but not less unfailing, and 
for those who can climb, and who know the 
taste of purity, infinitely sweeter to drink 
from. 

Simplicity of life and devotion to the 
ideal, the one a means to the other, — 
these he would preach, in season and, if 
possible, out of season. ''Simplicity, sim- 
plicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs 
be as two or three, and not a hundred or a 
thousand ; instead of a million count half 
a dozen, and keep your accounts on your 
thumb-nail." This, which, after all, is no- 
thing but the old doctrine of the one thing 
needful, — since it is one mark of a prophet 
that he deals not in novelties, but in truth, 
— all this spiritual economy is connected 



THOREAU 99 

at the root with Thoreau's beHef in free 
will, his vital assurance that the nobility 
or meanness of a man's life is committed 
largely to his own choice. He may waste it 
on the trivial, or spend it on the essential. 
There is "no more encouraging fact than 
the unquestionable ability of man to elevate 
his life by a conscious endeavor." And what 
a man is inwardly, that to him will the 
world be outwardly; his mood affects the 
very "quality of the day." Could anything 
be truer or more finely suggested ? For 
himself, Thoreau was determined to get 
the goodness out of time as it passed. He 
refused to be hurried. The hour was too 
precious. " If the bell rings, why should we 
run.^" Neither would he knowingly take 
up with a second-best, or be put off with 
a sham, — as if there were nothing real. 
He would not "drive a nail into mere lath 
and plastering," he declared. Such a deed 
would keep him awake nights. A very rea- 
sonable and practical kind of doctrine, 
certainly, whether it be called transcen- 
dentalism or common sense. Perhaps we 
discredit it with a long word by way of re- 
fusing the obligation it would lay us under. 



100 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

And possibly it is for a similar reason 
that the world in general has agreed to 
regard Thoreau not as a preacher of right- 
eousness, but as an interpreter of nature. 
For those who have settled down to take 
things as they are, having knocked under 
and gone with the stream, in Thoreau 's 
language, it is pleasanter to read of beds 
of water-lilies flashing open at sunrise, or of 
a squirrel's pranks upon a bough, than of 
daily aspiration after an ideal excellence. 
Whatever the reason, Thoreau is to the 
many a man who lived out of doors, and 
wrote of outdoor things. 

His attainments as a naturalist have been 
by turns exaggerated and belittled, one ex- 
treme following naturally upon the other. 
As for the exaggeration, nothing else was 
to be expected, things being as they were. 
It is what happens in every such case. If 
a man knows some of the birds, his neigh- 
bors, who know none of them, celebrate 
him at once as an ornithologist. If he is 
reputed to "analyze" flowers, — pull them 
to pieces under a pocket-lens, and by means 
of a key find out their polysyllabic names, 
— he straightway becomes famous as a 



THOREAU 101 

botanist; all of which is a little as if the 
ticket-seller and the grocer's clerk should 
be hailed as financiers because of their fa- 
cility in making change. 

Thoreau knew his local fauna and flora 
after a method of his own, a method which, 
for lack of a better word, may be called 
sympathetic. Nobody was ever more suc- 
cessful in getting inside of a bird ; and that, 
from his point of view and for his purpose, 
— and not less for ours who read him, — 
was the one important thing. After that it 
mattered little if some of his flying neigh- 
bors escaped his notice altogether, while 
others led him a vain chase year after year, 
and are still, in his published journals, a 
puzzle to readers. Wlio knows what his 
night warbler was, or, with certainty, his 
seringo bird ? The latter, indeed, a native 
of his own Concord hay-fields, he seems 
to have been pretty well acquainted with 
as a bird; its song was familiar to him, 
and less frequently he caught sight of the 
singer itself perched upon a fence-post or 
threading its way through the grass; but 
he had found no means of ascertaining its 
name, and so was driven to the primitive 



102 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

expedient of christening it with an inven- 
tion of his own. His description of its 
appearance and notes leaves us in no 
great doubt as to its identity; probably it 
was the savanna sparrow; but how com- 
pletely in the dark he himself was upon 
this point may be gathered from an entry 
in his journal of 1854. He had gone to 
Nantucket, in late December, and there 
saw, running along the ruts, flocks of "a 
gray, bunting-like bird about the size of 
the snow-bunting. Can it be the seaside 
finch," he asks, "or the savanna sparrow, 
or the shore lark.?" Savanna sparrow, or 
shore lark! A Baldwin apple, or a russet! 
But what then ? There are gaps in every 
scholar's knowledge, and the man who has 
"named all the birds without a gun" is 
yet to be heard from. It is fair to remind 
ourselves, also, that Thoreau's studies in 
this line were pursued under limitations 
and disadvantages to which the amateur 
of our later day is happily a stranger. 
Ornithologically, it is a long time since 
Thoreau's death, though it is less than 
forty-five years. 

If any be disposed to insist, as some 



THOREAU 103 

have insisted, that he made no discoveries 
(he discovered a new way of writing about 
nature, for one thing), and was more curi- 
ous than scientific in his spirit and method 
as an observer, it is perhaps sufiicient to 
reply that he cultivated his own field. From 
first to last he refused the claims of sci- 
ence, — whether rightly or wrongly is not 
here in question, — and with the exception 
of one or two brief essays wrote nothing 
directly upon natural history. He wor- 
shiped Nature, even while he played the 
spy upon her, fearing her enchantments 
and "looking at her with the side of his 
eye." Run over the titles of his books: 
"A Week on the Concord and Merrimack 
Rivers," "Walden," "The Maine Woods," 
"Cape Cod," "A Yankee in Canada," 
"Excursions." The first two are studies 
in high and plain living, — practical phi- 
losophy, spiritual economy, the right use 
of society and solitude, books and nature. 
The rest are narratives of travel, with a 
record of what the traveler saw and thought 
and felt. In " Excursions," to be sure, there 
is an early paper on "The Natural His- 
tory of Massachusetts," to which, by strain- 



104 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

ing a point, we may add one on "The 
Succession of Forest Trees," another on 
''Autumnal Tints," and still another on 
"Wild Apples." Elsewhere, though the 
landscape is sure to be carefully studied, 
it is always a landscape with figures. In 
truth, while he wrote so much of outward 
nature, and so often seemed to find his fel- 
low-mortals no better than intruders upon 
the scene, his real subject was man. "Man 
is all in all," he says; "Nature nothing but 
as she draws him out and reflects him." 
And again he said, "Any affecting human 
event may blind our eyes to natural ob- 
jects." 

The latter sentence was written shortly 
after the death of John Brown, in whose 
fate Thoreau had been so completely ab- 
sorbed that his old Concord world, when 
he came back to it, had almost a foreign 
look to him, and he remarked with a start 
of surprise that the little grebe was still 
diving in the river. With all his devotion 
to nature and philosophy, it was the "hu- 
man event" that really concerned him. 
But of course he had ideas of his own 
as to what constituted an event. As for 



THOREAU 105 

men's so-called affairs, and all that passes 
current under the name of news, nothing 
could be less eventful; for all such things 
he could never sufficiently express his 
contempt. "In proportion as our inward 
life fails," he says, ''we go more constantly 
and desperately to the post-office." And 
he adds, in that peculiarly airy manner of 
his to which one is tempted sometimes to 
apply the old Yankee adjective "toplofty," 
"I would not run round the corner to see 
the world blow up." ^ After which, the 
reader whose bump of incuriosity is less 
highly developed may console himself by 
remembering that when a powder-mill 
blew up in the next town, Thoreau, hearing 
the noise, ran downstairs, jumped into a 
wagon, and drove post-haste to the scene 
of the disaster. So true is it that it is 

"the most difficult of tasks to keep 
Heights which the soul is competent to gain." 

Careful economist as Thoreau was, 
bravely as he trusted his own intuitions 
ajid kept to his own path, much as he 
preached simplicity and heroically as he 
practiced it, he shared the common lot 



106 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

and fell short of his own ideal. Life is 
never quite so simple as he attempted 
to make it, and he, like other men, was 
conscious of a divided mind. He had by 
nature a bias toward the investigation of 
natural phenomena, a passion for particu- 
lars, which, if he had been less a poet and 
philosopher, might have made him a man 
of science. He knew it, and was inwardly 
chafed by it. Perhaps it was because of 
this chafing that he fell into the habit 
of speaking so almost spitefully of science 
and scientific men. Not to lay stress upon 
his frequent paradoxes about the superi- 
ority of superstition to knowledge, the ad- 
vantages of astrology over astronomy, the 
slight importance of precision in matters 
of detail ("I can afford to be inaccurate"), 
— to say nothing of these things, which, 
taken as they were meant, are not without 
a measure of truth, and with which no 
lover of Thoreau will be much disposed 
to quarrel (those who cannot abide the 
nudge of a paradox or an inch or two of 
exaggeration may as well let him alone), it 
is plain that in certain moods, especially in 
his later years, his own semi-scientific re- 



THOREAU 107 

searches were felt to be a hindrance to the 
play of his higher faculties. "It is impos- 
sible for the same person to see things 
from the poet's point of view and that of 
the man of science," he writes in 1842. 
"Man cannot afford to be a naturalist," 
he says again, in 1^53. "I feel that I 
am dissipated by so many observations. 
. . . Oh, for a little Lethe!" And a week 
afterward he falls into the same strain, 
in a tone of reminiscence that is of the 
very rarest with him. "Ah, those youth- 
ful days," he breaks out, "are they never 
to return .P when the walker does not too 
enviously observe particulars, but sees, 
hears, scents, tastes, and feels only him- 
self, the phenomena that showed them- 
selves in him, his expanding body, his 
intellect and heart. No worm or insect, 
quadruped or bird, confined his view, but 
the unbounded universe was his. A bird 
has now become a mote in his eye." What 
devotee of natural science, if he be also a 
man of sensibility and imagination, does 
not feel the sincerity of this cry ? 

But having delivered himself thus pas- 
sionately, what does the diarist set down 



108 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

next ? Without a break he goes on : " Dug 
into what I take to be a woodchuck's bur- 
row in the low knoll below the cliffs. It was 
in the side of the hill, and sloped gently 
downward at first diagonally into the hill 
about five feet, perhaps westerly, then 
turned and ran north about three feet, then 
northwest further into the hill four feet, 
then north again four feet, then northeast 
I know not how far, the last five feet, per- 
haps, ascending," — with as much more 
of the same tenor and equally detailed. 
A laughable paragraph, surely, to follow 
a lament over a too envious observation of 
particulars; with its "perhaps" four times 
repeated, its five feet westerly, three feet 
northerly, and so on, like a conveyancer's 
description of a wood-lot: and all about 
a hole in the ground, which he "took to 
be" a woodchuck's burrow! 

In vain shall a man bestir himself to run 
away from his own instincts. In vain, in 
such a warfare, shall he trust to the freedom 
of the will. Happily for himself, and happily 
for the world, Thoreau, though he "could 
not afford to be a naturalist," could never 
cease from his "too envious observation." 



THOREAU 109 

By inclination and habit he liked to see 
and do things for himself, as if they had 
never been seen or done before. That was 
one mark of his individualistic temper, 
not to say a chief mark of his genius. He 
describes in his journal an experiment in 
making sugar from the sap of red maple 
trees. Here, too, he goes into the minutest 
details, not omitting the size of the holes 
he bored and the frequency with which the 
drops fell, — about as fast as his pulse 
beat. His father, he mentions (the son 
was then forty years old), cliided him for 
wasting his time. There was no occasion 
for the experiment, the father thought; 
it was well known that the thing could 
be done; and as for the sugar, it could be 
bought cheaper at the village shop. "He 
said it took me from my studies," the jour- 
nal records. **I said that I made it my 
study, and felt as if I had been to a uni- 
versity." If fault-finding is in order, an 
individualist prefers to administer it on his 
own account. One remembers Thoreau's 
characteristic declaration that he had never 
received the first word of valuable counsel 
from any of his elders. In the present 



110 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

instance, surely, as much as this must be 
said for him, — that by habits of this un- 
practical-seeming kind knowledge is made 
peculiarly one's own, and, old or new, keeps 
something of the freshness of discovery 
upon it. The critic may smile, but even 
he will not dispute the charm of writing 
done in such a spirit, — the very spirit in 
which the old books were written, in the 
childhood of the world. 

Even the edibility of white-oak acorns 
affected Thoreau, at the age of forty, as 
a new fact. So far as his feeling about 
it was concerned, the fruit might have 
been that morning created. "The whole 
world is sweeter" to him for having "dis- 
covered " it. "To have found two Indian 
gouges and tasted sweet acorns, is it not 
enough for one afternoon .?" he asks him- 
self. And the next day, shrewd economist 
and exaggerator that he is, he tries his 
new dainty again, and behold, a second 
discovery: the acorns "appear to dry 
sweet!" One need not be a critic, but only 
a homely-witted, country-bred Yankee, to 
smile at this. But indeed, it is a relief to 
be able to smile now and then at one 



THOREAU 111 

who held himself so high and aloof, — "a 
Switzer on the edge of the glacier," as he 
called himself; who found no wisdom too 
lofty for him, no companionship quite 
lofty enough ; and who, in his longing for 
something better than the best, could 
exclaim, "Give me a sentence which no 
intelligence can understand." Not that we 
feel any diminution of our respect or affec- 
tion; but it pleases us to have met our 
Switzer for once on something near our 
own level. In an author, as in a friend, an 
amiable weakness, if there be strength 
enough behind it, is only another point of 
attraction. 

As a writer, Thoreau is by himself. 
There are no other books like "Walden" 
and the *'Week." The reader may like 
them or leave them (unless he is pretty 
sure of himself, he may be advised to try 
" Walden " first), he will find nowhere else 
the same combination of pure nature and 
austere philosopliy. It is hard even to see 
with what to compare them, or to conceive 
of any one else as having written them. 
If Marcus Aurelius, with half his sweet- 
ness of temper eliminated, and something 



112 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

of sharpness, together with liberal mea- 
sures of cool intellectuality, injected, could 
have been united with Gilbert White, rather 
less radically transformed, and if the re- 
sultant complex person had made it his 
business to write, we can perhaps imagine 
that his work would not have been in all 
respects unlike that of the sage of Walden; 
in saying which we have but taken a cir- 
cuitous course back to our former position, 
that Thoreau was a man of his own kind. 

He was an author from the beginning. 
Of that, as he said himself, he was never in 
doubt. His ceaseless observation of nature 
— which some have decried as lacking pur- 
pose and method — and his daily journal 
were deliberately chosen means to that end. 
"Here have I been these forty years learn- 
ing the language of these fields that I may 
the better express myself." That was what 
he aimed at, let his subject be what it 
might, — to express himself. 

Few writers have ever treated their work 
more seriously, or studied their art more 
industriously. He talked sometimes, to be 
sure, as if there were no art about it. To 
listen to him in such a mood, one might 



THOREAU 113 

suppose that the fact and the thought were 
the only things to be considered, and that 
language followed of itself. Such was 
neither his belief nor his practice. But 
he was one of the fortunate ones who by 
taking pains can produce an effect of easi- 
ness ; who can recast and recast a sentence, 
and in the end leave it looking as if it had 
dropped from a running pen. One of the 
fortu nates, we say; for an air of innocent 
unconsciousness is as becoming in a sen- 
tence as in a face. 

On this point a useful study in con- 
trasts might be made between Thoreau 
and a man who gladly acknowledged him 
as one of his masters. "Upon me," says 
Robert Louis Stevenson, '*this pure, nar- 
row, sunnily ascetic Thoreau had exer- 
cised a great charm. I have scarce written 
ten sentences since I was introduced to 
him, but his influence might be somewhere 
detected by a close observer." The ob- 
server would need to be very close indeed, 
the majority of Stevensonians will think, 
but that, true or false, is nothing to the pur- 
pose here. Stevenson and Thoreau both 
made writing a lifelong study, and with 



114 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

exceedingly diverse results. The Scotch- 
man's style is the finer, but then it is some- 
times in danger of becoming superGne, 
We may not wish it different. Such work 
must be as it is. It could hardly be better 
without being worse, the writing of fine 
prose being always a question of compro- 
mises, a gain here for a loss there, a choice of 
imperfections; perfect prose being in fact 
impossible, except in the briefest snatches. 
But surely Stevenson's gift was not an ab- 
solute naturalness and transparency, such 
as lets the thought show through on the in- 
stant, and leaves the beauty of the verbal 
medium to catch the attention afterward, if 
the reader will. " For love of lovely words," 
an artist of Stevenson's temperament, how- 
ever sound his theories, may sometimes find 
it hard to make a righteous choice between 
the music of an exquisite cadence and the 
pure expressiveness of a halting phrase. 
The author of "Walden" had his literary 
temptations, but not of this kind. Let the 
phrase halt, so long as it expressed a sturdy 
truth in sturdy fashion. As for that homely 
quality — '' careless country talk " — which 
Thoreau prayed for, and in good measure 



THOREx\U 115 

received, it is questionable whether Steven- 
son ever sought it, though he would no 
doubt have assented to Thoreau's words: 
"Homeliness is almost as great a merit in 
a book as in a house, if the reader would 
abide there. It is next to beauty, and a very- 
high art." 

Thoreau, indeed, first as a spiritual econ- 
omist, and next as an artist, had a natural 
relish for the common and the plain. Every 
landscape that was dreary enough, as he 
says of Cape Cod, had a certain beauty in 
his eyes. Whether in literature or in life, he 
preferred the beauty that is inherent, — 
the beauty of the thing itself. Ornament, 
beauty laid on, did not much attract him. 
Among persons, it was the wilder-seeming, 
the less tamed and cultivated, with whom 
he liked to converse, and whose sayings 
he oftenest recorded. Though they might 
be crabbed specimens, "run all to thorn 
and rind, and crowded out of shape by 
adverse circumstances, like the third chest- 
nut in the burr," they were still what 
nature had made them. Even a crowd 
pleased him, if it was composed of the right 
materials, — that is to say, if it was rude 



116 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

enough. Thus he, a hermit, took pleasure 
in the autumnal cattle-show. With what 
a touch of affection he lays on the colors! 
"The wind goes hurrying down the coun- 
try, gleaning every loose straw that is left 
in the fields, while every farmer lad, too, 
appears to scud before it, — having donned 
his best pea-jacket and pepper-and-salt 
waistcoat, his unbent trousers, outstanding 
rigging of duck, or kerseymere, or cordu- 
roy, and his furry hat withal, — to coun- 
try fairs and cattle-shows, to that Rome 
among the villages where the treasures of 
the year are gathered. All the land over 
they go leaping the fences with their tough, 
idle palms, which have never learned to 
hang by their sides, amid the low of calves 
and the bleating of sheep, — Amos, Abner, 
Elnathan, Elbridge, — 

'From steep pine-bearing mountains to the plain.' 

I love these sons of earth, every mother's 
son of them." It is worth while to see the 
country's people, he thinks, and even the 
"supple vagabond," who is "sure to ap- 
pear on the least rumor of such a gather- 
ing, and the next day to disappear, and 



THOREAU 117 

go into his hole like the seventeen-year 
locust." 

For the average (uninitiated) reader, be 
it said, there is nothing better in Thoreau 
than his thuifib-nail sketches of humble, 
every-day humanity; as there is no part 
of his work, not even his denunciation of 
worldly conformity, or his picturing of 
nature's moods, which is done with more 
absolute good-will. A man need not be 
an idealist, a naturalist, or anything else 
out of the ordinary, to like the Canadian 
woodchopper, for example, cousin to the 
pine and the rock, who never was tired 
in his life, and, stranger still, sometimes 
acted as if he were "thinking for himself 
and expressing his own opinions;" or the 
old fisherman, always haunting the river 
in serene afternoons, and "almost rustling 
with the sedge;" or the Cape Cod wrecker, 
whose face was "like an old sail endowed 
with life," — one of the Pilgrims, perhaps, 
who had "kept on the back side of the 
Cape and let the centuries go by;" or the 
free-spoken Wellfleet oysterman, "a poor 
good-for-nothing crittur," now "under pet- 
ticoat government," who yet remembered 



118 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

George Washington as a r-a-ther large and 
portly-looking man, with a pretty good leg 
as he sat on his horse;" or the iron-jawed 
Nauset woman, who seemed to be shouting 
at you through a breaker, and who looked 
"as if it made her head ache to live;" or 
the country soldier boy on his way to mus- 
ter, in full regimentals, with shouldered 
musket and military step, who in a lonely 
place in the woods is suddenly abashed at 
the sight of a stranger approaching, and 
finds himself hard put to it to get by in 
anything like military order. 

With men like these, natural men, 
Thoreau found himself at home; he de- 
scribed them almost as sympathetically as 
if they had been so many woodchucks or 
hen-hawks. As he said of his own boy- 
hood, they were "part and parcel of na- 
ture" itself. As for fine manners parading 
about in fine clothes, how should he, a rus- 
tic jealous of his rusticity, presume to know 
what, if anything, might be going on under 
all that broadcloth ? Reality was the chief 
of his ideals. The shabbiest of it was more 
to the purpose than a masquerade. 

Whether it would have been better for 



THOREAU 119 

him had his taste been more liberal in 
this respect is a question about which it 
might be useless to speculate. Breadth 
may easily be sought at too great an ex- 
pense, especially by one who has a distinct 
and highly individual work to accomplish. 
First of all, such a man must be himself. 
His imperfections, even, must be of his 
own kind, twin-born with his better quali- 
ties, a certain lack of complaisance being 
one of the likeliest and, in the strict sense, 
most appropriate. But that some of Tho- 
reau's private and hasty remarks, in his 
letters and journals, about the meanness 
of his fellow-creatures, the more "respecta- 
ble" among them, especially, might profit- 
ably have been left unprinted, is less open 
to doubt. They were expressions of moods 
rather than of convictions, it is fair to 
assume, and in any event would never 
have been printed by their author, one 
of whose cravings was for some kind of 
india-rubber that would rub out at once 
all which it cost him so many perusals 
and so much reluctance to erase. It is 
pretty hard justice that holds a man pub- 
licly to everything he scribbles in private, 



120 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

— as if no allowance were to be made 
for whim and the provocation of the mo- 
ment. The charm of a journal, as Thoreau 
says, consists in a "certain greenness." 
It is "a record of experiences and growth, 
not a preserve of things well done or said." 
After which it may be confessed that even 
from "Walden" and the "Week," pub- 
lished in the author's lifetime, it is possible 
to discover that charity and sweetness were 
not among his most distinguishing charac- 
teristics. Taste him after Gilbert White, 
and contrast the mellowness of the one with 
the sharp, assertive, acidulous quality of the 
other. Thoreau was a wild apple, and 
would have been proud of the name, sug- 
gestive of that "tang and smack" which 
he so feelingly celebrated. "Nonesuches" 
and " seek-no-furthers " were very tame 
and forgettable, he thought, as compared 
with the wildings, even the acrid and the 
puckery among which he begrudged to 
the cider-mill. It is in part this very " tang 
and smack," we may be sure, that makes 
his books keep so well in Time's literary 
cellar. 

His humor, especially, "indispensable 



THOREAU 121 

pledge of sanity," as he calls it, is of that 
best of fruity flavors, a pleasant sour. 
Some, indeed, emulating his own fertility 
in paradox, have maintained that he had 
no humor, while others have rebuked him 
for priggishly excluding it from his later 
work. Did such critics never read " Cape 
Cod " ? There, surely, Thoreau gave his 
natural drollery full play, — an almost 
antinomian liberty, to take a w^ord out of 
those ecclesiastical histories, with the read- 
ing of which, under his umbrella, he so 
patiently enlivened his sandy march from 
Orleans to Provincetown. **As I sat on a 
hill one sultry Sunday afternoon," he says, 
"the meeting-house windows being open, 
my meditations were interrupted by the 
noise of a preacher who shouted like a 
boatswain, profaning the quiet atmosphere, 
and who, I fancied, must have taken off 
his coat. Few things could have been 
more disgusting or disheartening. I wished 
the tithing-man would stop him." Charles 
Lamb himself could hardly have bettered 
the delicious, biting absurdity of that final 
touch. It was not this Boanergian minis- 
ter, but a man of an earlier generation, of 



122 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

whom we are told that he wrote a " Body 
of Divinity," " a book frequently sneered 
at, particularly by those who have read it." 

The whole Cape, past and present, was 
looked at half quizzically by its inland 
visitor. The very houses "seemed, like 
mariners ashore, to have sat right down 
to enjoy the firmness of the land, without 
studying their postures or habiliments," — 
a description not to be fully appreciated 
except by those who have seen a Cape Cod 
village, with its buildings dropped here and 
there at haphazard upon the sand. Here, 
as everywhere, he was hungry for particu- 
lars; now improvising a rude quadrant 
with which to calculate the height of the 
bank at Highland Light, now, by ingen- 
ious but "not impertinent" questions, and 
for his private satisfaction only, getting at 
the contents of a schoolboy's dinner-pail, 
— the homeliest facts being always "the 
most acceptable to an inquiring mind." 
Thoreau's mother, by-the-bye, had some 
reputation as a gossip. 

His work, humorous or serious, tran- 
scendental or matter-of-fact, is all the 
fruit of his own tree. Whatever its theme, 



THOREAU 123 

nature or man, it is all of one spirit. Think 
what you will of it, it is never insipid. As 
his friend Channing said, it has its "stoical 
merits," its "uncomfortableness." Well 
might its author express his sympathy with 
the barberry bush, whose business is to 
ripen its fruit, not to sweeten it, — and 
to protect it with thorns. "Seek the lotus, 
and take a draught of rapture," was Mar- 
garet Fuller's rather high-flown advice to 
him; yet she too perceived that his mind 
was " not a soil for the citron and the rose, 
but for the whortleberry, the pine, or the 
heather." In all his books it would be next 
to impossible to find a pretty phrase or a 
sentimental one. He resorted to nature — 
in his less inquisitive hours — for the mood 
into which it put him, the invigoration, the 
serenity, the mental activity it communi- 
cated. But his pleasure in it, as compared 
with Wordsworth's or Hazlitt's, to take 
very dissimilar examples, was mostly an 
intellectual affair, the reader is tempted to 
say, though the remark needs qualification. 
One remembers such a passage as that 
descriptive of a winter twilight in Yellow 
Birch Swamp, where the gleams of the 



124 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

birches, as he came to one after another 
of them, "each time made his heart beat 
faster/* Yet even here we are told of his 
ecstasy rather than made to feel it; and 
in general, surely, though he valued his 
emotions, and went to the woods and 
fields to enjoy them, they were such emo- 
tions as belonged to a pretty stoical sort 
of Epicurean; less rapturous than Words- 
worth's, less tender than Hazlitt's, aiid 
with no trace of the brooding melancholy 
which makes the charm of books like Ober- 
mann and the journal of Amiel. He de- 
lighted in artless country music (it does 
not appear that he ever heard any other, 
and of course he felicitated himself upon 
this as upon all the rest of his poverty; 
it was only the depraved ear, he thought, 
that needed the opera), but let any reader 
try to imagine him writing this bit out of 
one of Hazlitt's essays: — 

"I remember once strolling along the 
margin of a stream, skirted with willows 
and plashy sedges, in one of those low, 
sheltered valleys on Salisbury Plain, where 
the monks of former ages had planted 
chapels and built hermits' cells. There 



THOREAU 125 

was a little parish church near, but tall 
elms and quivering alders hid it from sight, 
when, all of a sudden, I was startled by 
the sound of the full organ pealing on the 
ear, accompanied by rustic voices and 
the willing quire of village maids and chil- 
dren. It rose, indeed, ' like an exhalation 
of rich distilled perfumes.' The dew from 
a thousand pastures was gathered in its 
softness; the silence of a thousand years 
spoke in it. It came upon the heart like 
the calm beauty of death; fancy caught 
the sound, and faith mounted on it to the 
skies. It filled the valley like a mist, and 
still poured out its endless chant, and 
still it swells upon the ear, and wraps me 
in a golden trance, drowning the noisy 
tumult of the world!" 

Here is another spirit than Thoreau's, 
another voice, another kind of prose — 
prose with the throb and even the accent 
of poetiy. Stoics and spiritual economists 
do not write in this strain, nor is this the 
manner of a too envious observer of par- 
ticulars. For better or worse, the prose 
of our poet-naturalist went squarely on 
its feet. His fancy might be never so nimble ; 



126 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

conceit and paradox might fairly make a 
cloud about him; but he essayed no flights. 
If his heart beat faster at some beauty of 
sight or sound, he said so quietly, with no 
change of voice, and passed on. As far 
as the mere writing w^ent, it was done in 
straightforward, honest fashion, as if a 
man rather than an author held the pen. 

Thoreau believed in well-packed sen- 
tences, each carrying its own weight, ex- 
pressive of its own thought, rememberable 
and quotable. Of the beauties of a flowing 
style he had heard something too much. 
In practice, nevertheless, whether through 
design or by some natural felicity, he steered 
a middle course. The sentences might be 
complete in themselves, detachable, able 
to stand alone, but the paragraph never 
lacked a logical and even a formal cohe- 
sion. It was not a collection of "infinitely 
repellent particles," nor even a "basket of 
nuts." A great share of the writer's art, 
as he taught it, lay in leaving out the un- 
essential, — the getting in of the essential 
having first been taken for granted. As 
for readers, in his more exalted moods he 
wished to write so well that there would be 



THOREAU 127 

few to appreciate him; sometimes, indeed, 
he seemed to desire no readers at all. He 
speaks with stern disapproval of such as 
trouble themselves upon that point, and 
*' would fain have one reader before they 
die." A lamentable weakness, truly. 

In his present estate, however, let us 
hope that he carries himself a shade less 
haughtily, and is not above an innocent 
pleasure in the spread of his earthly fame, 
in new readers and new editions, and such 
choicely limited popularity as befits a 
classic. Even in his lifetime, as Emerson 
tells the story, he once tried to believe that 
something in his lecture might interest a 
little girl who told him she was going to 
hear it if it wasn't to be one of those old 
philosophical things that she did n't care 
about; and this although he had just been 
maintaining, characteristically, that what- 
ever succeeded with an audience must be 
bad. He speaks somewhere against luxu- 
rious books, with superfluous paper and 
marginal embellishments. His taste was 
Spartan in those days. But he was never 
a stickler for consistency, and we may 
indulge a comfortable assurance that he 



128 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

takes no offense now at the sight of his 
Cape Cod journey — in which he worked 
so hard on that soft, leg-tiring Back-Side 
beach to get the ocean into him — decked 
out in colors and set forth sumptuously 
in two volumes. It is a very modest author 
who fears that his text will be outshone 
by any pictures, no matter how splendid. 
But who would have thought it, fifty years 
ago, — a book by the hermit of Walden 
in an edition de luxe, to lie on parlor tables ! 
If only his father and his brother John 
could have seen it! 

Thoreau believed in himself and in the 
soundness of his work. He coveted readers^ 
and believed that he should have them. 
Without question he wrote for the future, 
and foresaw himself safe from oblivion. 
Emerson regretted Henry's want of am- 
bition, we are told. He might have spared 
himself. "Show me a man who consults 
his genius," said Thoreau, "and you have 
shown me a man who cannot be advised." 
And he was the man. He was following 
an ambition of his own. If he did not keep 
step with his companions, it was because 
he "heard a different drummer." His 



THOREAU 129 

ambition, and what seemed his wayward 
singularity, have been justified by the 
event. His "strange, self-centred, solitary 
figure, unique in the annals of literature," 
is in no danger of being forgotten. But 
what is most cheering about his present 
increasing vogue, especially in England, 
is that it arises from the very quality that 
Thoreau himself most prized, the inner- 
most thing in him, — the loftiness and 
purity of his thought. Simplicity, faith, 
devotion to the essential and the perma- 
nent, — these were never more needed 
than now. These he taught, and, by a 
happy fate, he linked them with those 
natural themes that change not with time, 
and so can never become obsolete. 



THOREAU'S DEMAND UPON 
NATURE 



J 



THOREAF'S DEMAND UPON 
NATURE 

"I WISH to speak a word for Nature, for 
absolute freedom and wildness." So Tho- 
reau began an article in "The Atlantic 
Monthly " forty-four years ago. He wished 
to make an extreme statement, he de- 
clared, in hope of making an emphatic one. 
Like idealists in general, — like Jesus in 
particular, — he believed in omitting quali- 
fications and exceptions. Those were mat- 
ters certain to be sufficiently insisted upon 
by the orthodox and the conservative, the 
minister and the school committee. 

In an attempt at an extreme statement, 
Thoreau was very unlikely to fail. Thanks 
to an inherited aptitude and years of prac- 
tice, there have been few to excel him with 
the high lights. In his hands exaggeration 
becomes one of the fine arts. We will not 
call it the finest art; his own best work 
would teach us better than that; but such 
as it is, with him to hold the brush, it would 



134 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

be difficult to imagine anything more effec- 
tive. When he praises a quaking swamp 
as the most desirable of dooryards, or 
has visions of a people so enlightened as 
to burn all their fences and leave all the 
forests to grow, who shall contend with 
him ? And yet the sympathetic reader — 
the only reader — knows what is meant, 
and what is not meant, and finds it good; 
as he finds it good when he is bidden to 
resist not a thief, or to hate his father and 
mother. 

Thoreau's love for the wild — not to be 
confounded with a liking for natural his- 
tory or an appreciation of scenery — was 
as natural and unaffected as a child's love 
of sweets. It belonged to no one part of 
his life. It finds utterance in all his books, 
but is best expressed, most feelingly and 
simply, and therefore most convincingly, 
in his journal, especially in such an entry 
as that of January 7, 1857, a bitterly cold, 
windy day, with snow blowing, — one of 
the days when " all animate things are re- 
duced to their lowest terms." Thoreau 
has been out, nevertheless, for his after- 
noon walk, "through the woods toward 



THOREAU'S DEMAND ON NATURE 135 

the cliffs along the side of the Well Mea- 
dow field." Contact with Nature, even in 
this her severest mood, has given a quick- 
ening yet restraining grace to his pen. 
Now, there is no question of "emphasis," 
no plotting for an "extreme statement," 
no thought of dull readers, for whom the 
truth must be shown large, as it were, by 
some magic-lantern process. How differ- 
ently he speaks ! " Might I aspire to praise 
the moderate nymph Nature," he says, "I 
must be like her, moderate." 

The passage is too long for quotation 
in full. "There is nothing so sanative, 
so poetic," he writes, '*as a walk in the 
woods and fields even now, when I meet 
none abroad for pleasure. Nothing so 
inspires me, and excites such serene and 
profitable thought. . . . Alone in distant 
woods or fields, in unpretending sprout- 
lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even 
in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day 
like this, when a villager would be think- 
ing of his inn, I come to myself, I once 
more feel myself grandly related. This 
cold and solitude are friends of mine. . . . 
I get away a mile or two from the town, 



136 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

into the stillness and solitude of nature, 
with rocks, trees, weeds, snow about me. 
I enter some glade in the woods, perchance, 
where a few weeds and dry leaves alone 
lift themselves above the surface of the 
snow, and it is as if I had come to an open 
window. I see out and around myself. . . . 
This stillness, solitude, wildness of nature 
is a kind of thoroughwort or boneset to 
my intellect. This is what I go out to seek. 
It is as if I always met in those places some 
grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encour- 
aging, though invisible companion, and 
walked with him." 

Four days later, dwelling still upon his 
"success in solitary and distant woodland 
walking outside the town," he says: "I do 
not go there to get my dinner, but to get 
that sustenance which dinners only pre- 
serve me to enjoy, without which dinners 
are a vain repetition. ... I never chanced 
to meet with any man so cheering and 
elevating and encouraging, so infinitely 
suggestive, as the stillness and solitude of 
the Well Meadow field." 

Language like this, though all may per- 
ceive the beauty and feel the sincerity 



THOREAU'S DEMAND ON NATURE 137 

of it, is to be understood only by those 
who are of the speaker's kin. It describes 
a country which no man knows unless he 
has been there. It expresses life, not the- 
ory, and calls for life on the part of the 
hearer. 

And if the appeal be made to this tri- 
bunal, the language used here and so often 
elsewhere, by Thoreau, touching the rela- 
tive inferiority of human society will neither 
give offense nor seem in any wise extrava- 
gant or morbid. Thoreau knew Emerson; 
he had lived in the same house with him; 
but even Emerson's companionship was 
less stimulating to him than Nature's own. 
Well, and how is it with ourselves, who 
have the best of Emerson in his books? 
Much as these may have done for us, have 
we never had seasons of communion with 
the life of the universe itself when even 
Emerson's words would have seemed an 
intrusion ? Is not the voice of the world, 
when we can hear it, better than the voice 
of any man interpreting the world ? Is it 
not better to hear for ourselves than to be 
told what another has heard? When the 
forest speaks things ineffable, and the soul 



138 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

hears what even to itself it can never utter, 

— for such an hour there is no book, there 
never will be. And if we wish not a book, 
no more do we wish the author of a book. 
We are in better company. In such hours, 

— too few, alas ! — though we be the plain- 
est of plain people, our own emotions 
are of more value than any talk. We know, 
in our measure, what Thoreau — 

"An early unconverted Saint" — 

was seeking words for when he said, "I 
feel my Maker blessing me." 

To him, as to many another man, vis- 
itations of this kind came oftenest in wild 
and solitary places. Small wonder, then, 
that he loved to go thither. Small wonder 
that he found the pleasures of society un- 
satisfying in the comparison. There he 
communed, not with himself nor with his 
fellow, but with the "Wisdom and Spirit 
of the Universe." And when it is objected 
that this ought not to have been true, 
that he ought to have found the presence 
of men more elevating and stimulating 
than the presence of "inanimate" nature, 
we must take the liberty to believe that 



THOREAU'S DEMAND ON NATURE 139 

the critic speaks of that whereof he knows 
nothing. To revert to our own figure, he 
has never lived in Thoreau's country. 

Thoreau was wedded to Nature not 
so much for her beauty as for dehght in 
her high companionableness. There was 
more of Wordsworth than of Keats or 
Ruskin in him. He was more philosopher 
than poet, perhaps we may say. He loved 
spirit rather than form and color, though 
for these also his eye was better than most. 
Being a stoic, a born economist, a child 
of the pinched and frozen North, he felt 
most at home with Nature in her dull 
seasons. His delight in a wintry day 
was typical. He loved his mistress best 
when she was most like himself; as he 
said of human friendships, "I love that 
one with whom I sympathize, be she 
'beautiful' or otherwise, of excellent mind 
or not." The swamp, the desert, the wil- 
derness, these he especially celebrated. 
He began by thinking that nothing could 
be too wild for him; and even in his 
later years, notably in the "Atlantic" essay 
above quoted, he sometimes blew the same 
heroic strain. By this time, however, he 



140 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

knew and confessed, to himself at least, 
that there was another side to the story; 
that there was a dreariness beyond even 
his ready appreciation. More than once 
we find in his diary expressions like this, 
in late November: "Now a man will eat 
his heart, if ever, now while the earth is 
bare, barren, and cheerless, and we have 
the coldness of winter without the variety 
of ice and snow." 

And what was true of seasons was, in 
the long run, equally true of places. Let 
them be wild, by all means, yet not too 
wild. When he returned from the Maine 
woods, he had seen, for the time being, 
enough of the wilderness. It was a relief 
to get back to the smooth but still varied 
landscape of eastern Massachusetts. That, 
for a permanent residence, seemed to him 
incomparably better than an unbroken 
fprest. The poet must live open to the sky 
and the wind; his road must be prepared 
for him; and yet, "not only for strength, 
but for beauty, the poet must, from time 
to time, travel the logger's path and the 
Indian's trail, to drink at some new and 
more bracing fountain of the Muses." In 



THOREAU'S DEMAND ON NATURE 141 

short, the poet should live in Concord, 
and only once in a while seek the inspira- 
tions of the outer wilderness. 

What we have called Thoreau's stoi- 
cism (knowing very well that he was not 
a stoic, except in some partial, looser 
meaning of the word), his liking for plain- 
ness and low expense, is perhaps at the 
base of one of his rarest excellencies as 
a writer upon nature, — his reserve and 
moderation. In statement, it is true, he 
could extra vagate like a master. He boasts, 
as well he may, of his prowess in that di- 
rection; but in tone and sentiment, when 
it came to dealing, not with ethics or 
philosophy, but with the mistress of his 
affections, he kept always decently within 
bounds. He had a very sprightly fancy, 
when he chose to give it play; but he had 
with it, and controlling it, a prevailing 
sobriety, the tempering grace of good 
sense. "The alder," he says, "is one of 
the prettiest trees and shrubs in the win- 
ter. It is evidently so full of life, with its 
conspicuously pretty red catkins dangling 
from it on all sides. It seems to dread the 
winter less than other plants. It has a 



142 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

certain heyday and cheery look, less stiflF 
than most, with more of the flexible grace 
of summer. With those dangling clusters 
of red catkins which it switches in the 
face of winter, it brags for all vegetation. 
It is not daunted by the cold, but still 
hangs gracefully over the frozen stream." 
Most admirable, thrown in thus by the 
way, amid unaffected, matter-of-fact de- 
scription and every-day sense, and with 
its homely "brags" and "switches" to 
hold it true, — to save it from a touch of 
foppery, a shade too much of prettiness. 
How differently some writers have dealt 
with similar themes : men so afraid of the 
commonplace as to be incapable of saying 
a thing in so many words, though it were 
only to mention the day of the week; men 
whose every other sentence must contain 
a "felicity;" whose pages are as full of 
floweriness and dainty conceits as a milli- 
ner's window; who surfeit you with con- 
fections, till you think of bread and water 
as a feast. Whether Thoreau's temper- 
ance is to be credited to the restraints of 
stoical philosophy or to plain good taste, 
it is a virtue to be thankful for. 



THOREAU'S DEMAND ON NATURE 143 

With him the study of nature was not 
an amusement, nor even a more or less 
serious occupation for leisure hours, but 
the work of his life; a work to which 
he gave himself from year's end to year's 
end, as faithfully and laboriously, and 
with as definite a purpose, — a crop as 
truly in his eye, — as any Concord farmer 
gave himself to his farm. He was no ama- 
teur, no dilettante, no conscious hobbyist, 
laughing between times at his own ab- 
sorption. His sense of a mission was as 
unquestioning as Wordsworth's, though 
happily there went with it a sense of humor 
that preserved it in good measure from 
over-emphasis and damaging iteration. 

In degree, if not in kind, this whole- 
hearted, lifelong devotion was something 
new. It was one of Thoreau's originali- 
ties. To what a pitch he carried it, how 
serious and all-controlling it was, the pages 
of his journal bear continual witness. His 
was a Puritan conscience. He could never 
do his work well enough. After a eulogy 
of winter buds, "impregnable, vivacious 
willow catkins, but half asleep along the 
twigs" (there, again, is fancy of an uncloy- 



144 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

ing type), he breaks out: "How healthy 
and vivacious must he be who would treat 
of these things. You must love the crust 
of the earth on which you dwell more 
than the sweet crust of any bread or cake; 
you must be able to extract nutriment out 
of a sand heap." "Must" was a great 
word with Thoreau. In hard times, espe- 
cially, he braced himself with it. "The 
winter, cold and bound out as it is, is 
thrown to us like a bone to a famishing 
dog, and we are expected to get the mar- 
row out of it. While the milkmen in the 
outskirts are milking so many scores of 
cows before sunrise, these winter morn- 
ings, it is our task to milk the winter it- 
self. It is true it is like a cow that is 
dry, and our fingers are numb, and there 
is none to wake us up. . . . But the win- 
ter was not given us for no purpose. We 
must thaw its cold with our genialness. 
We are tasked to find out and appropriate 
all the nutriment it yields. If it is a cold 
and hard season, its fruit no doubt is the 
more concentrated and nutty." 

In these winter journalizings, we not 
only have example and proof of the ear- 



THOREAU'S DEMAND ON NATURE 145 

nestness with which Thoreau pursued 
his outdoor studies, but are shown their 
method and their sufficient object. He 
was to be a writer, and nature was to be 
his theme, or, more exactly, his medium 
of expression. He required, therefore, in 
the way of raw material, a considerable 
store of outward knowledge, — knowledge 
of the outside or aspect of things, — classi- 
fied, for convenience, as botany, ornitho- 
logy, entomology, and the like; but after 
this, and infinitely more than this, he 
needed a living, deepening intimacy with 
the life of the world itself. For observa- 
tion of the ways of plants and animals, of 
the phases of earth and sky, he had end- 
less patience and all necessary sharpness 
of sense; work of this kind was easy, — 
he could do it in some good degree to his 
satisfaction; the vexatious thing about it 
was that it readily became too absorbing; 
but his real work, his hard work, the work 
that was peculiarly his, that taxed his 
capacities to tJie full, and even so was 
never accomplished, this work was not an 
amassing of relative knowledge, an accu- 
mulation of facts, a familiarizing of him- 



146 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

seK with appearances, but a perfecting 
of sympathy, the organ or means of that 
absolute knowledge which alone he found 
indispensable, which alone he cared greatly 
to communicate. There, except at rare 
moments, he was to the last below his 
ideal. His "task" was never done. His 
union with nature was never complete. 

The measure of this union was gauged, 
as we have seen already, by its spiritual 
and emotional effects, by the mental states 
it brought him into ; as the religious mystic 
measures the success of his prayers. He 
walked in the old Carlisle road, as the 
saint goes to his knees, to "put off worldly 
thoughts." The words are his own. There, 
when the hour favored him, he "sauntered 
near to heaven's gate." 

It must be only too evident that success 
of this transcendental quality is not to 
be counted upon as one counts upon find- 
ing specimens for a botanical box. There 
is no comparison between scientific pur- 
suits, so called, and this kind of super- 
natural history. For this, as Thoreau says, 
"you must be in a different state from 
common." "If it were required to know 



THOREAU'S DEMAND ON NATURE 147 

the position of the fruit dots or the charac- 
ter of the indusium, nothing could be easier 
than to ascertain it; but if it is required 
that you be affected by ferns, that they 
amount to anything, signify anything, to 
you, that they be another sacred scrip- 
ture and revelation to you, helping to re- 
deem your life, this end is not so easily 
accomplished." 

This, then, it was for which Thoreau 
was ever on the alert; this was the prize 
set before him; this he required of ferns 
and clouds, of birds and swamps and de- 
serted roads, — that they should stir him 
inwardly, that they should do something 
to redeem his life, or, as he said elsewhere, 
to affect the quality of the day. For this 
he cultivated the "fellowship of the sea- 
sons," a fellowship on which no man ever 
made larger drafts. Even when nature 
seemed to be getting "thumbed like an 
old spelling-book," even in the month 
that tempted him sometimes to "eat his 
heart," he still "sat the bench with perfect 
contentment, unwilling to exchange the 
famiHar vision that was to be unrolled for 
any treasure or heaven that could be ima- 



148 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

gined." A new November was a novelty 
more tempting than any voyage to Europe 
or even to another world. "Young men 
have not learned the phases of nature:" 
so he comforted himself, when the fervors 
and inspirations of youth seemed at times 
to be waning : " I would know when in the 
year to expect certain thoughts and moods, 
as the sportsman knows when to look for 
plover." 

Here, as everywhere with Thoreau, na- 
ture, in his ultimate conception of it, was 
nothing of itself. Everything is for man. 
This belief underlies all his writing upon 
natural themes, and, as well, all his per- 
sonal dealings with the natural world. His 
idlest wanderings, whether in the Maine 
forests or in Well Meadow field, were made 
serious by it. To judge him by his own 
testimony, he seems to have known com- 
paratively little of a careless, purposeless, 
childish delight in nature for its own sake. 
Nature was a better kind of book; and 
books were for improvement. In this re- 
spect he was sophisticated from his youth, 
like some model of "early piety." Nature 
was not his playground, but his study, his 



THOREAU'S DEMAND ON NATURE 149 

Bible, his closet, his means of grace. As 
we have said, and as Channing long ago 
implied, his was a Puritan conscience. He 
must get at the heart of things, sparing 
no pains nor time, holding through thick 
and thin to the devotee's faith: "To him 
that knocketh it shall be opened." In this 
spirit he waited upon nature and the 
motions of his own genius. Patience, soli- 
tude, stillness, sincerity, and a quiet mind, 
— these were the instruments of his art. 
With them, not with prying sharp-sight- 
edness, was the secret to be won. In his 
own phrase, characteristic in its homely 
expressiveness, if you would appreciate 
a phenomenon, though it be only a fern, 
you must "camp down beside it." And 
you must invent no distinctions of great 
and small. The humming of a gnat must 
be as significant as the music of the 
spheres. 

Was he too serious for his own good, 
whether as man or as writer ? And did 
he sometimes feel himself so ? Was he 
whipping his own fault when he spoke 
against conscientious, duty-ridden people, 
and praised 



150 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

"simple laboring folk 
Who love their work. 
Whose virtue is a song " ? 

It is not impossible, of cours^. But he, too, 
loved his work, — loved it so well as per- 
haps to need no playtime. Some have said 
that he made too much of his " thoughts 
and moods," that he was unwholesomely 
beset with the idea of self -improvement. 
Others have thought that he would have 
written better books had he stuck closer 
to science, and paid less court to poetry 
and Buddhistic philosophy. Such objec- 
tions and speculations are futile. He did 
his work, and with it enriched the world. 
In the strictest sense it was his own work. 
If his ideal escaped him, he did better than 
most in that he still pursued it. 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 

Stevenson was one of the happy few : he 
knew his Hfe's business from childhood. 
He was to write books. Happier still, and 
one of even a smaller minority, he early dis- 
covered that authorship is an art requir- 
ing a long and rigorous apprenticeship ; 
that, if a man is to write, he must first 
study how, putting himself under tuition 
and devoting himself to practice; that an 
author no more than a pianist can begin 
with "pieces" and a public performance. 
In short, Stevenson had from the begin- 
ning an idea of literary composition as a 
fine art, — an art not to be picked up 
some pleasant day by the roadside (as 
later in life he essayed, for whim's sake, 
to pick up the art of writing music), nor 
carried away, as a matter of course, along 
with other more or less useful odds and 
ends of knowledge, from the grammar 
school or university, but to be acquired, 
if at all, by years on years of drill. An- 



154 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

other man may write ''well enough," and 
perhaps successfully, so far as material 
rewards go, by nature and the rule of 
thumb; but the artist aims at perfection, 
— perfection for its own sake. That aim, 
the pursuit of that ideal, is what makes 
him an artist. And such was Stevenson. 

"All through my boyhood and youth," 
he says, "I was known and pointed out 
for the pattern of an idler; and yet I 
was always busy on my own private 
end, which was to learn to write. I kept 
always two books in my pocket, one to 
read, one to write in. As I walked, my 
mind was busy fitting what I saw with 
appropriate words; when I sat by the 
roadside, I would either read, or a pen- 
cil and a penny-version book would be 
in my hand, to note down the features of 
the scene or commemorate some halting 
stanzas." 

So he " lived with words." And the 
point of the confession is that these " child- 
ish tasks," as he calls them in another 
place, were done "consciously for prac- 
tice." "I had vowed that I would learn 
to write. That was a proficiency that 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 155 

tempted me; and I practiced to acquire it, 
as men learn to whittle, in a wager with 
myself." 

But he did more than to practice. A 
man does not learn to whittle, or to paint, 
or to play the flute, by the primitive pro- 
cess of merely trying his hand, be it ever 
so patiently. The fine arts are no longer 
things to be invented, every man for him- 
self. Others have whittled and painted; 
one generation has bequeathed its incre- 
ment of skill to the next; here and there 
a master has arisen, and the masters have 
set up a standard; and now, the standard 
being established, the essential matter is, 
not to paint or write to the satisfaction 
of village critics, but to prove one's self 
a workman beside the best of the craft. 
For this there needs acquaintance with 
the masters' work, — such acquaintance, 
or so young Stevenson was persuaded, 
as could come from nothing but an imi- 
tative study of it. And he set himself to 
imitate. He had never heard the dictum, 
or he disbelieved it, that a boy should read 
the best writers, but pattern after nobody. 
Wherever he saw excellence of a kind that 



156 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

appealed to him, he took it for the time 
being as his model, a mark to aim at. This 
he did consciously and unashamed. 

Such a course would never give him 
originality; but no matter. For the pre- 
sent it was not originality he was seek- 
ing; he was not yet writing books: he 
was learning his trade. Whether, having 
learned it, he should turn out to have 
original genius to go with his knowledge 
and put it to use, was a question that the 
event alone could determine. Originality 
is a gift of the gods; it is born with a 
man, or it is not born with him. The tech- 
nique of a prose style, on the other hand, 
could be learned, and Stevenson's present 
business was to learn it, in the only way 
of which he had any knowledge, the way in 
which his masters themselves had learned 
it, — practice based on imitation.* 

How could the boy have done better.? 
He was called to write; he had "the love 
of words" which, as he says, marks the 

^ After he began writing, the question of an individual style 
took on, as was inevitable, a different complexion. In his early 
days he would not read Carlyle, and (more surprising) at forty 
or thereabout he discontinued the reading of Livy; dreading in 
both cases an injury to his own manner. 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 157 

writer's vocation; and for such a boy "to 
work grossly at the trade, to forget senti- 
ment, to think of his material and nothing 
else, is, for a while at least, the king's high- 
way of progress." Yes, "for a while;" and 
after the while, if he is not merely one of 
the many that are called, but one of the 
few that are chosen, he will have found his 
own line, and such originality as nature 
endowed him with at birth (or before) will 
declare itself in the way appointed. 

Stevenson had the name of an idler, he 
tells us, and it must be said that he wore 
it jauntily, — as he wore his old clothes. 
Whatever he did or failed to do, it would 
have been hard to catch him without de- 
fense. He wrote " An Apology for Idlers," 
which, as he confided to a correspondent, 
was "an apology for R. L. S.;" and to 
this day it sounds like a good one. It 
would do many a hard-working man and 
useful member of society a service to 
read it. He believed that, for the young 
especially, a certain kind and measure of 
idleness is a profitable kind of industry; 
while tliey are seemingly unemployed they 
may perchance be learning sometliing that 



158 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

is really worth while: "to play the fiddle, 
to know a good cigar, or to speak with 
ease and opportunity to all varieties of 
men." 

For himself, like many another man of 
genius, he was very little of a scholar in 
the traditional sense of the word. What 
the schools had taken upon themselves 
to teach were mostly not the things that 
he had taken upon himself to learn. At 
the university he devised ''an extensive 
and highly rational system of truantry," 
and no one "ever had more certificates 
(of attendance) for less education." Like 
his antitype in Mr. Barrie's novel, he could 
always find a way. No doubt his personal 
attractiveness counted for much here, as it 
did everywhere. One of his earlier teach- 
ers had pronounced him '' without excep- 
tion the most delightful boy he ever knew;" 
and his mother's testimony is that his mas- 
ters found it pleasanter to talk with him 
than to teach him. How his wits and his 
fine gift of plausibility helped him over a 
hard place in one of the last of his examina- 
tions — for admission to the bar — is related 
as from himself, by Mr. Balfour. The sub- 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 159 

ject in hand was "Ethical and Metaphysi- 
cal Philosophy," and a certain book had 
been prescribed. ** The examiner asked me 
a question," Stevenson says, "and I had 
to say to him, 'I beg your pardon, but I 
do not understand your phraseology. ' ' It 's 
the text-book,' he said. 'Yes; but you 
could n't possibly expect me to read so 
poor a book as that.' He laughed like a 
hunchback, and then put the question in 
another form. I had been reading Mayne, 
and answered him by the historical method. 
They were probably the most curious an- 
swers ever given in the subject. I don't 
know what he thought of them, but they 
got me through." 

It is a good story, and thoroughly 
characteristic. There was nothing aca- 
demic in Stevenson's turn of mind, whether 
in youth or manhood. "I was inclined 
to regard any professor as a joke," he re- 
marks, in his " Memoir of Fleeming Jen- 
kin," and the words may be taken as fairly 
expressive of his attitude toward the whole 
business of what is called education. The 
last thing he meant to be was a conven- 
tional man, — "a consistent first-class pas- 



160 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

senger in life," — and why should he dis- 
quiet himself over a conventional training ? 
Allow him his own subject and his own 
method, and he would be studious with 
anybody. 

So throughout his early years, as we 
have seen, he studied the art of author- 
ship. Then, as happens to all artists, came 
the critical point of production or non- 
production. Would the plant so sedu- 
lously watered and tended, so promising 
in the leaf, prove to be fertile or sterile.*^ 
Having so lofty an idea of his art, so ex- 
alted a standard of excellence in it, would 
he go on indefinitely putting himself off 
with preparations, " prelusory gymnastic," 
as he saw so many painters doing at Bar- 
bizon ("snoozers" instead of painters, cov- 
ering their walls with studies, and never 
coming to the picture), and as is so easy for 
art students of all kinds to do, or, having 
learned the handling of his tools, would he 
set himself to use them in the perform- 
ance of a man's work ? 

Such a question is by no means one that 
answers itself. In any particular case there 
is perhaps more than an even chance that 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 161 

the student will never have the industry, 
the courage, and the intellectual and moral 
stuff to accomplish, or even seriously put 
his hand to, any of the great things for 
which he has so long been making ready. 
Stevenson himself, from all that appears, 
may have had at the beginning a period 
when the issue hung more or less in doubt. 
"I remember a time," he wrote afterward, 
" when I was very idle, and lived and pro- 
fited by that humor." Now, he says, the 
case is different with him, he knows not 
why. Perhaps it is "a change of age." He 
made many slight efforts at reform, "had 
a thousand skirmishes to keep himself at 
work upon particular mornings;" the life 
of Goethe affected him, as did also some 
noble remarks of Balzac, but he was never 
conscious of a struggle, "never registered 
a vow, nor seemingly had anything per- 
sonally to do with the matter." "I came 
about like a well-handled ship," he con- 
cludes. "There stood at the wheel that 
unknown steersman whom we call God." 
In his twenty -fourth or twenty-fifth year, 
at all events, he was really getting under 
way, though for tlie present, as was be- 



162 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

coming, with small ventures; and from 
that time, except for the frequent occasions 
when illness and the likelihood of speedy 
death constrained him to "twiddle his fin- 
gers and play patience," he kept his pen 
busy as few men of anything like his phy- 
sical disabilities and his roving disposition 
have ever done. For it is important to note 
that he was by inheritance a wanderer. 
Even had his health allowed it, he could 
never have sat month after month at the 
same desk, turning off so many hundred 
words as his daily stint. Once, when he 
has lived for six months at Davos, he writes 
to his friend Colvin that he is in a bad 
way, — a result, he believes, of having been 
too long in one place. "That tells on my 
old gypsy nature; like a violin hung up, 
I begin to lose what music there was in 
me." And when his mother complained 
that he was little at home, he bade her not 
be vexed at his nomadic habits. "I must 
be a bit of a vagabond ; it 's your own fault, 
after all, is n't it ? You should n't have 
had a tramp for a son." 

For a man who had studied author- 
ship, and wished to write not mainly from 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 163 

books, but from the experience of his own 
mind and body, this ineradicable gypsy 
strain was of the highest value. How much 
it imported to Stevenson should be evident 
even to those who know his books only by 
the backs of them. Bodily health excepted, 
he had all the qualifications of a traveler. 
Happy man that he was, he was always 
a boy, rich to the last in some of the best 
of youthful virtues, — buoyancy, curiosity, 
"interest in the whole page of experience," 
and the capacity for surprise. The world 
for him was never an old story. When he 
saw a ship or a train of cars, he wished 
himself aboard. Discomforts and dangers 
were nothing; nay, they could be turned 
into excellent fun, and after that into al- 
most as excellent copy. His spirit was habit- 
ually strung up to out-of-door pitch, to 
borrow his own expression. He felt *'the 
incommunicable thrill of things." Not for 
him a staid life in drawing-rooms or city 
clubs. He would be out in the open, *' where 
men still live a man's life." At forty he 
wrote his own formula thus: "0.55 artist, 
0.45 adventurer." Near the same time, 
being just from the island of Molokai, 



164 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

where he had played croquet with seven 
leper girls (and would not wear gloves, 
though cautioned to that effect, lest it should 
make the girls unhappy to be reminded 
of their condition), he writes to a friend: 
"This climate; these voyagings; these land- 
falls at dawn ; new islands peaking from the 
morning bank ; new forested harbors ; new 
passing alarms of squalls and surf; new 
interests of gentle natives, — the whole tale 
of my life is better to me than any poem." 
A lucky combination it was, both for the 
man himself and for the world of readers, 
— fifty-five per cent artist, and forty-five 
per cent adventurer. 

And the adventures, of course, need not 
be so extraordinarily venturesome, with 
an artist's pen to put them on the paper. 
In 1887 Stevenson had been once more at 
the gates of death with hemorrhages, this 
time so often repeated that they had ceased 
almost to be exciting, and were rather 
grown tiresome ; and when the doctors pre- 
scribed another change of climate, he sailed 
for America. The steamer turned out to 
be loaded with cattle, — "a ship with no 
style on, and plenty of sailors to talk to;" 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 165 

and this is how the consumptive patient 
describes the voyage: '*I was so happy on 
board that ship, I could not have beheved 
it possible. We had the beastliest weather, 
and many discomforts; but the mere fact 
of its being a tramp-ship gave us many 
comforts ; we could cut about with the men 
and officers, stay in the wheel-house, dis- 
cuss all manner of things, and really be a 
little at sea. . . . My heart literally sang. 
. ... It is worth having lived these last 
years, partly because I have written some 
better books, which is always pleasant, 
but chiefly to have had the joy of this 
voyage." 

Later, in the South Seas, he ran more 
than once upon the very edge of ship- 
wreck, but always with the same brave 
heart and the same gayety. "We had a 
near squeak," he writes to a friend, after 
one such experience. *' The reefs were close 
in with, my eye! what a surf! The pilot 
thought we were gone, and the captain had 
a boat cleared, wiien a lucky squall came 
to our rescue. My wife, hearing tlie order 
given about the boats, remarked to my 
mother, * Is n't that nice .'^ We shall soon 



166 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

be ashore!' Thus does the female mind 
unconsciously skirt along the verge of eter- 
nity." And thus, be it added, does the ar- 
tistic masculine mind turn even the face of 
death itself '*to favor and to prettiness." 

By this time Stevenson had almost set- 
tled it with himseK that he should never 
again leave the sea. "My poor grandfa- 
ther, it is from him that I inherit the taste, 
I fancy, and he was round many islands 
in his day; but I, please God, shall beat 
him at that before the recall is sounded. 
. . . Life is far better fun than people 
dream who fall asleep among the chimney- 
stacks and telegraph wires." One feels 
like saying again. What a blessing it was 
for the world that a man so perennially 
boyish, so endowed with the capacity for 
enjoyment, so conscious of his life, so in- 
curably in love with the romantic side of 
things, was also the master of a style and 
an industrious lover of the art of WTiting! 

His remark, quoted above, about the 
"plenty of sailors to talk to" suggests an- 
other thing: his exceeding fondness for rub- 
bing elbows with what are called, inappro- 
priately enough, common people, — people 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 167 

who have lived free from the leveling, uni- 
formity-producing, character-dulling, com- 
monizing influences of too many books and 
an excess of social sophistication. This, 
too, was a real fairy's gift to a man des- 
tined for literature. *'He was of a conver- 
sible temper" (he is speaking of himself 
in his youth), "and insatiably curious in 
the aspects of life." Like Will o' the Mill, 
"he had a taste for other people, and other 
people had a taste for him." As we read 
of his journeyings hither and thither, and 
the friends he made almost as often as he 
opened his mouth, we are reminded of 
what David Balfour's father said of his 
offspring: "He is a steady lad and a canny 
goer; and I doubt not he will come safe, 
and be well liked where he goes." Perhaps 
it was from his own experience that Ste- 
venson was writing when he said that a 
boy might learn in his truant hours "to 
know a good cigar, or to speak with ease 
and opportunity to all varieties of men." 

Stevenson's books, the narratives of 
travel and the essays not less than the nov- 
els, — perhaps even more, — are galleries 
of portraits. Wherever he went, he found 



168 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

men : not caricatures, mere burlesques and 
oddities, cheap material for print, crea- 
tures of a single crying peculiarity, so easily 
drawn and, for one reading, so "effective;" 
nor lay figures simply, wire frames (litera- 
ture is populated with them) on which to 
hang *'the trappings of composition;" but 
breathing men, full, like the rest of us, of 
complexity and paradox, nobly designed, 
perhaps, but — still like the rest of us — 
more or less spoiled in the making; men 
who had known, each for himself, the war 
in the members (happy for them if they 
knew it still!), and had drunk, every one, 
of the mingled cup of tragedy and comedy. 
He loved the sight of them; their talk, wise 
or foolish, was music to his ears; and the 
queerest and ugliest of them, under his 
capable and affectionate hand, wear some- 
thing of a human grace upon the canvas. 
It is a great gallery. Who that has 
ever walked there will forget the old sol- 
dier turned beggar, the borrower of poets' 
books ? — *'the wreck of an athletic man, 
tall, gaunt, and bronzed; far gone in con- 
sumption, with that disquieting smile of 
the mortally stricken in his face ; but still 



J 



EGBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 169 

active afoot, still with the brisk military 
carriage, the ready military salute." We 
can see him, '* striding forward uphill, his 
staff now clapped to the ribs of his deep, 
resonant chest, now swinging in the air 
with the remembered jauntiness of the 
private soldier; and all the while his toes 
looking out of his boots, and his shirt 
looking out of his elbows, and death look- 
ing out of his smile, and his big, crazy 
frame shaken by accesses of cough." His 
honest head may have been "very nearly 
empty, his intellect like a child's," but he 
loved the unexpected words and the mov- 
ing cadence of good verse. We know his 
talk; a little more, and we should hear it: 
"Keats, — John Keats, sir, — he was a 
very fine poet." 

A book like "The Amateur Emigrant" 
is full of such sketches, every one done 
from life, and hit off with a perfection that 
might well render it and the volume, as 
foolish mortals say, "immortal." It would 
be long to enumerate them, though it is a 
short book. There is Jones the Welshman, 
for example, — " my excellent friend Mr. 
Jones," owner and dispenser of the Golden 



170 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

Oil; "hovering round inventions like a bee 
over a flower, and living in a dream of 
patents." He had been rich, and now was 
poor, but, like all dabblers in patents, he 
had '' a nature that looked forward." "If 
the sky were to fall to-morrow, I should look 
to see Jones, the day following, perched on 
a step-ladder and getting things to rights." 
What we should have cared most to see 
was Mr. Jones and Mr. Stevenson walk- 
ing the deck by the hour and dissecting 
their neighbors ; for Jones was first of all a 
student of character. " Whenever a quaint 
or human trait slipped out in conversation, 
you might have seen Jones and me ex- 
changing glances ; and we could hardly go 
to bed in comfort till we had exchanged 
notes and discussed the day's experience. 
We were then like a couple of anglers com- 
paring a day's kill," And there is the 
fiddler, "carrying happiness about with 
him in his fiddle-case," a " white-faced 
Orpheus cheerily playing to an audience 
of white-faced women," with his fiery bit 
of a brother, who "made a god of the 
fiddler," and was determined that every- 
body else should do the same; and Mac- 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 171 

kay, the cynic and debater, who professed 
to believe in nothing but what had to do 
with food ("that's the bottom and the 
top"), but who once grew so eager in main- 
taining this noble thesis that he slipped 
the meal hour, and was compelled, with a 
smile of shamefacedness, to go without his 
tea; and Barney the Irishman, the univer- 
sal favorite, so natural and happy, with his 
"tight little figure, unquenchable gayety, 
and indefatigable good will," who could 
sing most acceptably and play all man- 
ner of innocent pranks, but whose "drab 
clothes were immediately missing from the 
group" when, after the ladies had retired, 
some one struck up an indecent song; and 
the sick man (poor soul), who thought it 
was "by" with him, and who had a good 
house at home, and "no call to be here;" 
and the two stowaways, so fond of each 
other, yet so strikingly contrasted, — one 
so ready to work for his passage, the other 
"a skulker in the grain," and like the devil 
himself for lying. 

And besides these there are numbers 
more nearly or quite as telling; but they 
must be let pass, though it is pleasant to 



172 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

pick good things out of a book that, com- 
paratively speaking, seems to have been 
little made of, either by the author or by 
his admirers. To one of these, at least, 
"The Amateur Emigrant" seems, not one 
of Stevenson's greatest books, indeed, but 
certainly one of the most enjoyable, say 
on the sixth or eighth reading. 

It is a point of grace with any writer, 
and a very sine qua non with the essay- 
ist, that he should be able to speak often 
of himself without offense, as Montaigne 
and Lamb did, to mention two shining 
and incontestable examples. And the trick 
(though it is not a trick, but an admirable 
quality, and almost as far as honesty 
from being common) is none of your easy 
ones. To begin with, the venturer on such 
an experiment must be interested in him- 
self, which is by no means an ordinary 
happening. Most men, we may say, count 
for nullities under this head; they recog- 
nize their outward presentments in the 
glass, no doubt, and are letter-perfect with 
their names and occupations ; but for a 
knowledge of their inner selves, the story 
of their real lives, the " wonderful pageant 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 173 

of consciousness," one might almost as well 
interrogate the lamp-post on the next cor- 
ner. They have never kept company with 
their own thoughts, nor been in the least 
degree inquisitive about them. Life, as 
they live it, is a matter of externals, of eat- 
ing and drinking and being clothed, of 
getting and spending more or less money, 
of being amused, of movings up or down 
on a social ladder. As for the past, the past 
of themselves, — which with another man 
is his dearest possession, — it is mainly as 
if it had never been. They must have had 
a boy's dreams once, one would think, but 
that was long, long ago, and the dreamer 
is dead, and his dreams with him. 

But if a man is to tell the world about 
himself, and charm it into attention, he 
must not only be in love with his subject; 
he must have a natural frankness, an un- 
affected and almost unconscious delight 
in self-revelation, — tempered by a decent 
sense of j)ersonal privacy, — such as in- 
fallibly commends itself and makes its 
way, the listener cannot tell how. In other 
words, and in a good sense, the man must 
be still a boy, endowed with a boy's win- 



174 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

ning attributes, and entitled, therefore, to 
something of a boy's privilege. And with 
all the rest, and among the most important, 
he must be favored with the gracious qual- 
ity of humor. Of all talk whatsoever, talk 
about one's self must not be too serious. 
No man (or none but a great poet) can 
safely indulge in it unless it is natural for 
him to see the funny side of his own foibles, 
and at the right minute to make his point 
at his own expense. All of which is per- 
haps no more than to say that the writer 
in the first person must be a man of taste, 
knowing (a wisdom which nobody under 
the sun can teach him) what to say and 
what not to say, and, chief est of all, how 
and when to say it. 

Stevenson did not talk of himself so 
freely as Montaigne (how could he, in these 
proper days ?) nor, the present scribe being 
judge, so adorably as Lamb. Nature her- 
self is little likely to hit the white centre of 
perfection twice, and we shall perhaps see 
another Shakespeare as soon as another 
Lamb ; but few have loved a personal 
theme better, and in the handling of it 
there were none among the living to sur- 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 175 

pass him. He had every qualification for 
the work. A pity he died at forty-four, — 
a pity in every aspect of the case, but es- 
pecially when it is considered what trea- 
sures of youthful reminiscence he would 
have left behind him had he lived even to 
the approaches of old age. Such a devotee 
of his own past should have been spared to 
see it through a bluer haze. Yet even in 
middle life how fair it looked to him, and 
how lovingly he laid its colors as he trans- 
ferred the picture to the page! Hear him 
speak of his grandfather, in a passage 
no better than is common with him, and 
dealing with nothing out of the ordinary : — 
" Now I often wonder what I have inher- 
ited from this old minister. I must suppose, 
indeed, that he was fond of preaching ser- 
mons, and so am I, though I never heard 
it maintained that either of us loved to 
hear them. He sought health in his youth 
in the Isle of Wight, and I have sought it 
in both hemispheres; but whereas he found 
and kept it, I am still on the quest. He 
was a great lover of Shakespeare, whom he 
read aloud, I have been told, with taste; 
well, I love my Shakespeare, also, and am 



176 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

persuaded I can read him well, though I 
own I never have been told so. He made 
embroidery, designing his own patterns ; 
and in that kind of work I never made 
anything but a kettle-holder in Berlin wool, 
and an odd garter of knitting, which was 
as black as the chimney before I had done 
with it. He loved port, and nuts, and 
porter; and so do I, but they agreed better 
with my grandfather, which seems to me a 
breach of contract. He had chalkstones in 
his fingers; and these in good time I may 
inherit, but I would much rather have in- 
herited his noble presence. Try as I please, 
I cannot join myself on with the reverend 
doctor; and all the while, no doubt, and 
even as I write the phrase, he moves in 
my blood, and whispers words to me, and 
sits efficient in the very knot and centre of 
my being." 

A man could talk of himself in that strain 
till the sun put the stars out, and nobody 
would vote him tiresome or blame him for 
an egotist. Yes, a misfortune it was that 
he could not have lived to write a dozen 
books full of essays like "The Manse," 
"Old Mortality," "Memoirs of an Islet," 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 177 

and especially "A Gossip on a Novel 
of Dumas's." So appreciative a reader 
and so entertaining a talker could never 
have wearied us with gossip of his favorite 
books, "the inner circle of his intimates;" 
and the more first-personal and confiden- 
tial he became, the better we should have 
liked it. 

Well, since we cannot have the finished 
essays, we will be the more thankful for the 
letters. How good they are! — so varied, 
so spontaneous, so free-spoken, so humanly 
wise and so deliciously nonsensical ; now 
bubbling over with jest, now touching the 
deepest springs of thought and action; fit 
expression of a man who was himself both 
Ariel and Prospero; '*an old, stern, un- 
happy devil of a Norseman," yet with 
"always some childishness on hand;" the 
"grandson of the Manse," who would rise 
from the grave to preach, and has "scarce 
broken a commandment to mention," yet 
owning it as his darling wish to be a pirate. 
Wliim and opinion, settled conviction and 
passing mood, alike find utterance in them; 
and best of all, perhaps, many of them are 
most engagingly rich in matter connected 



178 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

with his own pursuit. A selection of these 
in a handy volume (why must letters always 
be put up in a form too cumbersome for 
lovers' convenience, as if they, more than 
other books, were expected to stand for- 
ever upon a shelf ?) would go far to supply 
the place of that treatise on "The Art of 
Literature" which their author spoke so 
frequently of making. 

Here would be found a letter to Mr. 
Marcel Schwob, a letter one page long, 
but weighty with the subtlest and pithi- 
est criticism, not of Mr. Schwob 's writ- 
ings alone (that might not seem so very 
important), but of writing in general, and 
in particular of Stevenson's. For it is 
impossible to read it without perceiving 
that the critic is passing judgment (no 
unkind one) upon his own early books 
of sentimental travel. His correspondent 
has sent him a volume of verses. He has 
read it through twice, and is reading it 
again, — a handsome compliment, to start 
with. It is essentially graceful, he says, 
but is a thing of promise rather than 
a thing final in itself. ''You have yet to 
give to us — and I am expecting it with 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 179 

impatience — something of a larger gait ; 
something daylit, not twilit ; something 
with the colors of life, not the flat tints 
of a temple illumination; something that 
shall be said with all the clearnesses and 
the trivialities of speech, not sung like a 
semi-articulate lullaby. It will not please 
yourself as well, but it will please others 
better. It will be more of a whole, more 
worldly, more nourished, more common- 
place — and not so pretty, perhaps not 
even so beautiful. No man knows better 
than I that, as we go on in life, we must 
part from prettiness and the graces. We 
but attain qualities to lose them; life is a 
series of farewells, even in art; even our 
proficiencies are deciduous and evanescent. 
So here with these exquisite pieces, . . . 
you will perhaps never excel them. . . . 
Well, you will do something else, and of 
that I am in expectation." 

Happy poet ! to be caressed so affec- 
tionately and lanced so beneficently with 
one stroke of the master's lumd; and 
happy critic, no less! having sentences 
of this quality to drop without a second 
thought, like small change from the hand 



180 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

of wealth, into the oblivion of private 
correspondence. 

In truth, Stevenson could afford to be 
generous ; he had always good things 
enough and to spare. His was a mind 
incessantly active. He was always cov- 
ering paper. If only disease would leave 
him strength enough to hold the pen, he 
could be trusted to keep it going. Ideas 
thronged upon him; books by the dozen, 
one may almost say, stood waiting for 
him to make them. The more wonder 
that, with all this excess of fertility, he 
could yet rewrite and rewrite, and then 
write again, still on the search for perfec- 
tion. Surely the artist was strong in him. 

His fame was of slow growth, surprising 
as the fact seems now, till he wrote nov- 
els. These, as all the world knows, since 
all the world reads them, are nothing 
like the ordinary modern novel of carpet 
knights and pairs of happy or unhappy 
lovers. They are romances in the heroic 
vein, spun mostly of a single thread, with no 
lack of high lights, plenty of blood-letting, 
a good spice of humor, dialogue that is 
closely pared and talks of itself, charac- 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 181 

ter displayed in action, not dissected, 
and movement to delight the lover of a 
story. 

The lode was struck, almost by acci- 
dent, when Stevenson's schoolboy step- 
son, backed by another "schoolboy in 
disguise," — namely, Stevenson's father, 
— begged him to '* write something inter- 
esting." The response to this reasonable 
request was *' Treasure Island," which not 
only filled the schoolboys' bill, but cap- 
tivated so stout-hearted a' disbeliever in 
things romantic as Mr. Henry James. As 
it was this story that introduced its author 
to a wider public, he used to speak of it 
(possibly with a shade of irony, though 
that does not certainly appear) as his first 
book. 

It may be that the gift of romance was 
the highest of his endowments. Some, at 
least, have thought so, and have reck- 
oned the novels as not only the most popu- 
lar, but the greatest of his works. As to 
the choice among them, the question of 
their comparative excellence among them- 
selves, that is a matter not under discussion 
here, the writer of the present paper hav- 



182 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

ing no sort of competency for dealing with 
it. His own special delight is in "David 
Balfour " (the two parts) and '' Treasure 
Island." These he hopes to read — now 
and then a chapter, if no more — as long as 
he reads anything. He likes the men, — 
and the women, — and he likes the talk. 
Mr. James's comment upon "Treasure 
Island," that one seems to be reading it 
over a schoolboy's shoulder, strikes him as 
extremely ingenious and pretty, but he is 
conscious of nothing of that nature him- 
self. He reads it, if he may be allowed 
to say so, on his own hook, and for the 
time being is himself the schoolboy, — ' 
which may or may not be the better fun. 
He likes the story and the pictures, — for 
every chapter is a picture, — and he likes 
the writing. 

Concerning this last point, so often dis- 
cussed, what shall be said .^ As Steven- 
son's nature was complex and his themes 
varied, so he wrote in many keys. His 
prose was never "far from variation and 
quick change." When he put pen to any 
work, — essay, travel, sketch, tragedy, or 
comedy, — the first thing was to strike 



i 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 183 

"'the essential note." He would not begin 
a funeral march in A major, nor a sailor's 
hornpipe in C minor; a requiem for the 
friend of his youth was one thing, and a 
description of his fellow passengers in the 
steerage was another: and, strange to tell, 
here and there a wise critic, wise above 
what is written, has discovered in this 
change of key proof of a want of original- 
ity. "Behold," he cries, "the man has no 
style of his own; to-day he writes in one 
manner, and to-morrow in another." The 
same sharp-eyed reviewers are certain to 
be troubled because Stevenson talks freely 
of style, openly professing to have culti- 
vated one, — to have cared not only for 
what he said, but almost or quite as much 
for the way in which he said it. "How 
can a man be concerned with the niceties 
of expression, and yet be true to himself .^" 
they seem ready to ask. A question to 
which, it must be admitted, there is no 
answer, or none worth the offering to any 
who need to ask for it. 

To be greatly occupied with matters of 
form is doubtless to subject one's self to 
j)eril. Careful writing may easily become 



184 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

mannered (as careless writing also may, 
and with less excuse); but what then? 
Danger is the common lot. An author, 
not less than other men, must face it, 
whether he will or no. He may choose 
between one set of pitfalls and another, 
but he will find no path without them. As 
for the risk of mannerism, Stevenson es- 
caped it substantially unharmed. Com- 
pared with some of the more famous of 
his style-loving contemporaries, he may be 
said to have come off without a scratch. 
Whether his style is better or worse than 
theirs (and touching a point so delicate 
an unprofessional critic may prudently re- 
serve his opinion) is a different matter; at 
least, it is less tagged with peculiarity. It 
was formed, as style should be, by the 
study of many models, not of one; and it 
has many virtues, including in good mea- 
sure one of the highest, rarest, and most 
elusive, the quality of pleasurableness, or 
charm, — a quality not to be acquired by 
labor, nor to be exactly defined; a some- 
thing added to a thing already complete, 
like the bloom on the grape or the perfume 
of the rose. 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 185 

If the style has failings, also; if one 
feels now and then, in the more closely 
wrought of the essays especially, a cer- 
tain excess of precision, a seeming hard- 
ness of outline, a lack, shall we say, of 
flexibility; if, after a time, one experi- 
ences a sensation as of walking in too 
continuously strong a light, with the sun, 
as it were, standing still at high noon; 
if one misses those momentary glimpses 
of invisible truth, those hints and adum- 
brations of things beyond the writer's 
and the reader's ken (a feeling as if twi- 
light were coming on, and shadows were 
falling across the page), those touches 
of distance and mystery which make the 
peculiar attractiveness of another order of 
writing; if this, and perhaps more than 
this (an occasional want of absolute suc- 
cess in the use of the file; a failure, that is 
to say, to leave the phrase looking only 
the more unstudied for the labor bestowed 
upon it), — if things like these are felt at 
times by the sensitive reader, what does 
it all signify but that, in the perception 
and expression of truth, as in the making 
of moral character, one excellence of neces- 



186 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

sity excludes- or dwarfs another, and per- 
fection is still to seek? As the French 
martyr said ("a dread confession," Steven- 
son called it, in one of his moods), "Prose 
is never done." 

The estimate which the author him- 
self placed upon his style (though this is 
a point of little consequence) seems not 
to have been exalted. He had his gift, he 
knew, and had done his best to improve it ; 
but other men had greater ones. He was 
an enthusiastic reader, and while still fresh 
from the enjoyment of "A Window in 
Thrums," he wrote to Mr. Barrie: "There 
are two of us now [two Scotchmen] that 
the Shirra might have patted on the head. 
And please do not think, when I seem 
thus to bracket myself with you, that I am 
wholly blinded with vanity. Jess is beyond 
my frontier line; I could not touch her 
skirt; I have no such glamour of twilight 
on my pen. I am a capable artist; but it 
begins to look to me as if you were a man 
of genius. Take care of yourself for my 
sake." 

A handsome thing for a man to write, 
and a pleasant thing for his lovers to 



i 



ROBERT LOUIS STE^^NSON 187 

remember, but, as we say, not to be in- 
terpreted too strictly, as if it settled any- 
thing. The more considerable a man's 
gifts, the more likely he is to speak dispar- 
agingly of them. To take his own word 
for it, Stevenson was a poor letter-writer, 
"essentially and originally incapable." So 
he assures one of his correspondents ; 
and then, the mood coming on him, he 
proceeds to cover page after page with 
the very scintillations of epistolary genius, 
— compliment, gossip, humor, brilliant 
description, verbal felicities, sweetness of 
personal feeling, everything, in short, that 
goes to the making of a perfect letter. 
No doubt he smiled at the incongruity of 
the thing as he folded the sheet (for no 
doubt he knew he had done well), but what 
shall we conclude as to the value of an 
honest author's depreciatory judgment of 
his own work.^ If it is not a proverb, it 
ought to be, that self-dispraise goes little 
ways. 

The welcome of Stevenson to his younger 
Scotch contemporary was characteristic of 
the man. In all his letters there is not 
a glimmer of professional jealousy nor a 



188 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

word of belittling criticism. With all his 
boyishness, — partly because of it, it might 
be truer to say, — he had a manly heart. 
Generosity and courage were matters of 
course with him, native to the blood. In 
his novels there is plenty — some would 
say a superfluity — of battle, murder, and 
sudden death; Cut and Thrust were two 
of his favorite heroes ; he loved the breath 
of danger, and when, for the first and last 
time, he saw armed men taking the field, 
"the old aboriginal awoke" in him, and 
he sniffed the air like a war horse; he 
could be stern as the Judgment Day it- 
self against injustice and cruelty; in such 
a cause he would break a lance, though 
all the world should call him, what he 
was once overheard to call himself, another 
Don Quixote; but withal, few men were 
ever more tender-hearted. At twenty-one, 
as he told the story more than twenty 
years afterward, he enjoyed a great day of 
fishing; the trout so many and so hungry 
that in his eagerness he forgot to kill them 
one by one as he took them from the water. 
In the small hours of the night his con- 
science smote him; he saw the fishes "still 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 189 

kicking in their agony ; " and he never fished 
again. Whoever was in distress was sure 
not only of his sympathy, but of his hand 
and purse. He would walk the streets of a 
city half the night with a lost child in his 
arms, invalid though he was ; and when he 
comes to clear the land of his new South 
Sea domain, he wonders whether any one 
else ever felt toward Nature just as he does. 
He pities the vines and grasses that he 
uproots: "their struggles go to my heart 
like supplications." Since his death, says 
his biographer, the native chiefs — "gentle 
barbarians," truly — have forbidden the 
use of firearms on the hillside where he is 
buried, "that the birds may live there 
undisturbed." 

Stevenson believed in the supremacy 
of the soul. He would not be put down 
by things material. Many years he lived 
face to face with death, and to the last his 
testimony was that he found his life good. 
To a critic who thought him too little 
appreciative of the darker side of human 
existence he wrote : " If you have had trials, 
sickness, the approach of death, the alien- 
ation of friends, poverty at the heels. 



190 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

and have not felt your soul turn round 
upon these things and spurn them under, 
you must be very differently made from 
me, and, I earnestly believe, from the ma- 
jority of men." Such was his brave con- 
fession ; and his life, from all we see of 
it, was in full accordance with his faith. 
It might be said of him what Lowell said 
of Chaucer: he was **so truly pious that 
he could be happy in the best world that 
God chose to make." 

Toward the last, it is true, he fell into 
a state of depression, and for a time was 
alarmingly unlike his old self. His power 
of work seemed to be gone, and the "com- 
plicated miseries" that surrounded him 
weighed hard upon his spirits. Even then, 
however, he protested his belief in "an 
ultimate decency of things; ay, and if I 
woke in hell, should still believe it. " This 
was his natural religion, which the early 
loss of his ancestral creed — that "dam- 
natory creed" with which his childhood 
was "pestered almost to madness" — had 
only deepened and irradiated. And the 
dark and sterile mood was no more than 
a mood, after all. Soon he was writing 



ROBERT LOUIS STE\^NSON 191 

again, more successfully than ever. And 
then, with everything bright before him, 
his powers working at their easiest and 
best, his prayer for "courage, gayety, and 
the quiet mind " fully answered, all at 
once the end came. The brief candle, that 
so often had flickered and burned low, 
was suddenly blown out. He had gone 
round more islands than his lighthouse- 
building grandfather, as it amused him 
once to boast, and now, like his grand- 
father, he had reached *'the end of all his 
cruising." 

"Home is the sailor, home from sea. 
And the hunter home from the hill.'* 

Over his grave, almost before his body 
could be lowered into it, there rose the 
inevitable buzz of critical surmise and 
questioning. Human nature is impatient. 
It believes in ranks and orders, and must 
liavo the labels on at once. Were Ste- 
venson's books really great, it desired to 
know, — as great as those of such and 
such another man .^ Or were his admirers 
— whose regrets and acclamations, it must 
be owned, made at that minute a pretty 



192 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

busy chorus — setting him on too lofty 
a pedestal and stirring about him too 
dense a ''dust of praise"? A few disin- 
terested souls seemed surely to believe it, 
and were in great perturbation accord- 
ingly. To listen to them one might have 
supposed that the very foundations were 
being destroyed. And then what should the 
righteous do ? 

They need not have troubled them- 
selves. The world will last a long time 
yet, and our little breath of praise or blame 
will speedily blow itself "out and be forgot- 
ten. As was said of Hazlitt, so it must 
be said of Stevenson : Time will tell. Not 
that it will of necessity tell the truth ; since 
what we dignify as the verdict of Time 
is, after all, in a certain way of looking at 
it, nothing but the opinion of the major- 
ity; but at least it will have the force of 
a last word, — there will be nobody to 
dispute it. 

Meanwhile, there is no reason in the 
nature of things why those who admire 
Stevenson, or any other contemporary, 
should be frightened out of saying so. Our 
judgment may be wrong, of course; but 



ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 193 

also it may be right; and right or wrong, 
if it be modestly held, there can be no 
law against its utterance. And if we are 
to speak at all, we must speak while we 
can, — unless, to be sure, we are to call no 
man happy till after we are dead. 



A RELISH OF KEATS 



A RELISH OF KEATS 

In all the writing of genius, which is a 
power tliat possesses its so-called pos- 
sessor rather than is possessed by him, 
there is much that seems like accident. 
Many things — all the best ones, it might 
not be too much to say — are contributed 
by the pen rather than, by the man. The 
man had never thought of them; it was 
no more within his intention to write them 
than to write another " Hamlet ; " and 
suddenly there they are before him on the 
paper. The handwriting is his, but as to 
where the words came from, he can tell 
hardly more than his most illiterate neigh- 
bor. From No-Man's-Land, if you please 
to say so. 

Keats was proudly conscious of this 
mystery. There is nothing, indeed, upon 
w^hich he, or any poet, could half so rea- 
sonably felicitate himself. His divinest 
verses, he knew it and owned it, were 
traced for him by "the magic hand of 



198 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

chance." A great thing, a power almost 
omnipotent, is this that we call by that 
convenient, ignorance-disguising name. It 
made not only Keats's verses, but Keats 
himself. Otherwise how explain him.? 
— son of a stable-keeper, a play-loving, 
belligerent, unstudious boy, a surgeon's 
apprentice at fifteen, dead at twenty-six, 
and before that — and henceforth — one 
of the chief glories of England, a poet, 
"with Shakespeare." 

He himself suspected nothing of his 
gift, so far as appears, till he was eighteen. 
Then he read the "Fairy Queen," fell 
under its enchantment, and immediately, or 
very soon, minding an inward call, began 
trying his own hand at verses. At first 
they were no more than verses, "neither 
precocious nor particularly promising," 
says Mr. Colvin; things that a man takes 
a certain pleasure in doing, — 

" There is a pleasure in poetic pains 
Which only poets know," — 

and finds, it may be, a certain kind of 
profit in doing, but sees to be of no value 
as soon as they are done. 



A RELISH OF KEATS 199 

At twenty the vein began to show the 
gold. He assayed the shining particles, for 
by this time he had been reading Shake- 
speare and Milton, and knew a line of 
poetry when he saw it,^ and, like the man 
in the parable, he did not hesitate. He 
knew what he wanted. He would sell all 
that he had and buy tliat field. "I begin," 
he said, in one of the earliest of his extant 
letters, — *'I begin to fix my eye upon one 
horizon." He would be a poet, because 
he must. He would not be a surgeon, be- 
cause he must not. He had done well in 
his studies, we are told, and was in good 
repute at the hospital, whither by this 
time he had gone; but a voice was speak- 
ing within him, and there was never an 
hour but he heard it. *'The other day, 
during the lecture," he said, ** there came 
a sunbeam into the room, and witli it a 
whole troop of creatures floating in the 
ray; and I was off with them to Oberon 

' How lar>,'('Iy \\v j)r()fif<(i hy lii.s study of Spenser, Shake- 
speare, Milton, and other poets, especially in the enrichment 
of his vocahulary. is shown hy Mr. E. de S<'Iincourt in the 
notes and apjwndices to his recent admirable edition of Keats's 
Poema. The subject is interesting, and is treate<l in the most 
painstaking manner. 



200 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

and fairy-land." "My last operation," 
he tells another correspondent, "was the 
opening of a man's temporal artery. I did 
it with the utmost nicety, but reflecting on 
what passed through my mind at the time, 
my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never 
took up the lancet again." 

It was a bold stroke, — no prudent 
adviser would have borne him out in it, 
— to forsake everything else to be a poet. 
But never was a luckier one. He had 
but four or five years to live, and (a com- 
fort indeed to think of!) he did not waste 
them in making ready to earn a living he 
was never to have. It was a plain case of 
losing one's life to find it. 

Only four or five years, but with what 
a zest he lived them ! Misgivings no doubt 
he had, enough and to spare. Now and 
then, to use his own words, he was pretty 
well "down in the mouth." "I have been 
in such a state of mind," he writes to 
Haydon, "as to read over my lines and 
hate them. I am one that 'gathers sam- 
phire, dreadful trade' — the Cliff of Poesy 
towers above me." He knew also the can- 
ker of pecuniary diflSculty ("like a nettle 



A RELISH OF KEATS 201 

leaf or two in your bed," his own expres- 
sion is); and then, when he was but be- 
ginning his work, there fell on him the 
stroke of a mortal disease, recognized as 
such from almost the first moment. But 
in spite of all, and through it all, what 
a fire he kept burning! How gloriously 
happy he often was! He hungered and 
thirsted after beauty, and he had the 
blessedness that rewards such a craving. 
For blessedness (and that is the best of it) 
consists perfectly with a low estate and 
all manner of outward misfortune. It can 
do without gold, and even without health. 
As for resting in comforts and toys, easi- 
ness and fine clothes, a great aim, if it 
does nothing else for a man, will at least 
save him from that pitch of vulgarity. 
A great aim is of itself a great part of the 
true riches. As Keats said, having found it 
out early, "our prime objects are a refuge 
as well as a passion." 

Such delight as the right men must al- 
ways take in some of his letters! — espe- 
cially, perhaps, some of the earlier ones, 
written in the period of his first fervors as 
a reader. He had never been a bookish 



202 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

boy (and no very serious harm done, it 
may be — for himself, at any rate, he was 
no believer in precocity), and now, when 
he fell all at once upon the great poets, it 
was as if he had been born again. What 
a relish he has ! How he smacks his lips 
over a line of Shakespeare, — who "has 
left nothing to say about nothing or any- 
thing." Here was a poet who read the 
works of poets. Possibly if he had lived to 
be old, he might have changed his prac- 
tice in this regard, finding his own works 
suflScient, as other elderly poets have before 
now been charged with doing. As it is, his 
raptures make one think again and again 
of Hazlitt's outburst, "The greatest plea- 
sure in life is that of reading, while we 
are young;" which, if it does not hit the 
white, is at least well within the outer 
circle.^ 

His method was unblushingly epicu- 
rean. Like a bee in a field of flowers, he 
was always stopping to suck the sweet- 

^ At this very time, by-the-bye, Hazlitt was lecturing, and 
Keats, after hearing him, reports to his brother (February 14, 
1818), "Hazlitt's last lecture was on Thomson, Cowper, and 
Crabbe. He praised Thomson and Cowper, but he gave Crabbe 
an unmerciful licking." 



A RELISH OF KEATS 203 

ness of a line. For that very purpose 
he was there. The happy boy! He had 
found out what books were made for. 
For a second time, nay, rather, for the first 
time, he had learned to read. A great dis- 
co veiy ! — old as the hills and new as the 
morning. But new or old, a great discov- 
ery. For an intellectual youtli there is 
none to match it, as there is no school- 
master to teach it. And with what a gusto 
he describes the process! You would think 
he had found Aladdin's lamp. His fancy 
cannot see it from sides enough; as a 
child dances about a new toy, and can 
never be done with looking. 

''I had an idea," he says, *'that a man 
might pass a very pleasant life in this 
manner. Let him on a certain day read 
a certain [)age of full poesy or distilled 
prose, and let him wander with it, and 
muse upon it, and reflect from it, and 
l)ring home to it, and prophesy upon it, 
and dream uj)()ii it : until it becomes stale. 
J5ul when will it do so? Never. When 
man lias arrived at a certain ri|KMK\ss 
in intellect, any one grand and spiritual 
passage serves him as a start ing-[X)st 



204 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

towards all *tlie two-and-thirty palaces.' 
How happy is such a voyage of concep- 
tion, what delicious diligent indolence! A 
doze upon a sofa does not hinder it, and a 
nap upon clover engenders ethereal fin- 
ger-pointings; the prattle of a child gives 
it wings, and the converse of middle-age 
a strength to beat them ; a strain of music 
conducts to 'an odd angle of the Isle,' 
and when the leaves whisper, it puts a 
girdle round the earth." 

This he calls a "sparing touch of noble 
books." It is too much to be expected, 
of course, that readers in general, whose 
idea of intellectual delights is of a new 
novel every other day, should be con- 
tented with a method so parsimonious. 
If this is what you call epicureanism, they 
might say, pray count us among the Stoics. 
And for all that, as applied to Keats's 
own practice, "epicurean" was the right 
word. 

What he would have been at forty or 
fifty, there is no telling. For the present 
he was not much concerned with whole 
poems as works of great constructive art. 
He was of an age to be (what Edward 



A RELISH OF KEATS 205 

FitzGerald is said to have always been) 
"more of a connoisseur than a critic, a 
taster of fragrant essences, an inhaler of 
subtle aromas." He loved beauty as at 
that stage he mostly found it (as the bee 
finds sweetness), in the individual flower, 
thinking far more of that than of the 
plant's symmetrical structure, or the com- 
position of the landscape. In this particu- 
lar he resembled Lamb, who, if he called 
himself '*an author by fits," was no less 
truly a reader by fits. "I can vehemently 
applaud," he said with characteristic, 
half -true self -depreciation, "or perversely 
stickle, at parts; but I cannot grasp at a 
whole." 

It was an admission of defect — he 
meant it so; but it is no slander to say 
that lovers of poetry are in general of sub- 
stantially the same mind. Their taste is 
selective. They love short poems, or the 
beauties of long ones. Many of them have 
confessed as much, and many others could 
do no less were they called into the box. 
Lowell, whose standing as a critic nobody 
questions, though some may be bold 
enough, or "perverse" enough, now tlie 



206 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

man is dead, to rule him out of the class 
of poets, bids us remember how few long 
poems will bear consecutive reading. "For 
my part," he says, "I know of but one, 
— the ' Odyssey.' " And Samuel Johnson, 
who, great critic or not, had "a good deal 
of literature," told Boswell, "that from 
his earliest years he loved to read poetry, 
but hardly ever read any poem to an end." 
The boy Keats, then, was not so utterly 
out of the way, at all events he was not 
without the support of good company, in 
taking for his own the motto of Ariel, — 

" Where the bee sucks, there suck I. *' 

And a good time he had of it; reading 
and idling, reading and writing, not too 
much in a hurry, no busier than a bee, 
following his bent, finding Shakespeare 
and the "Paradise Lost" every day greater 
wonders to him; looking upon fine phrases 
like a lover; more and more convinced 
that "fine writing, next to fine doing, is 
the top thing in the world." 

"Next to fine doing," he said, — and 
meant it; for his life and his own doings 
chimed with the word. Nor does the 



A RELISH OF KEATS 207 

word, even as a verbal confession of faith, 
stand alone. On the testimony of his 
friends, and on the testimony of his letters, 
Keats was no selfish weakling, no puny 
luxuriator in his own emotions, no mere 
hectic taster and maker of phrases. He 
worshiped beauty; he was born a poet, 
and rightly enough he followed his genius ; 
but he was born also affectionate and 
generous; in his nature there was much 
of that glorious something which we call 
chivalry; and he knew as well as all the 
preachers could tell him that in any true 
assize high conduct must always bear 
away the palm. No more than the apostle 
of old had he any "poor vanity that works 
of genius were the first things. No! for 
that sort of probity and disinterestedness 
which such men as Bailey possess does 
hold and grasp the tiptop of any spiritual 
honors that can be paid to anything in this 
world." Truly said, of this world or any 
other; for many things may be great, but 
the greatest of all is charity. 

It might almost liavebeen expected that 
genius so sudden in its flowering, so amaz- 
ingly exceptional, as Keats's, one of tlie 



208 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

wonders of human history, would be at- 
'tended by some strain of disease, some 
taint, more or less pronounced, of mental 
or moral unsoundness. It is the more to 
be rejoiced in, therefore, that his nature, 
mental, moral, and physical (except for 
the tuberculosis which he doubtless con- 
tracted from his mother, over whom, in 
her last illness, he, a boy of fifteen, watched 
with all a son's and daughter's faithful- 
ness), was to all appearance eminently 
sane and normal. As a boy, undersized 
though he was, he would always be fight- 
ing (which is normal, surely), and as a 
man he showed habitually, with one dis- 
tressing exception, a manly, self-respecting 
spirit. 

The single exception has to do with his 
passion for Fanny Brawne, concerning 
which it may be enough to say that when 
a man is head over ears in love with a 
pretty girl, or a girl whom he thinks 
pretty, and is by her, or by some perver- 
sity of Fate, put off, he is never sane. The 
letters that Keats wrote to his inamorata 
may have been, as his friendly critic says, 
"the letters of a surgeon's apprentice." 



A RELISH OF KEATS 209 

For ourselves we will take the critic's 
word for it. We have never read them 
(in our opinion it was indecent or worse 
to print them), nor should we feel sure 
of our ability to tell in what respect the 
love letters of a young doctor might be 
expected to differ from those of a young 
schoolmaster or a young duke of the realm. 
To be crazy is to be crazy. Enough to 
say that they were not the letters of the 
poet Keats. Alas, alas! What a tragedy 
is human life! What a weak and silly 
thing is the human heart! A man sees a 
girl's face, and behold, he is no longer a 
reasonable being; his peace of mind is 
gone, his work hindered, his day shortened, 
his fame tarnished, his name a laughing- 
stock. It is that which hath been, and it 
is that which shall be. As was said of old, 
so one may feel like saying still, "A man 
hath no preeminence above a beast; for 
all is vanity." 

And for all that, considering Keats's 
genius, its early development and its mi- 
raculous quality, and comparing him with 
men of his own kind, we must account 
him on the whole a man surprisingly 



210 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

well-balanced and sane. Call the roll of 
his famous poetic contemporaries, and 
few of them will be found saner. Good 
Archdeacon Bailey, who had abundant 
opportunity to know, said that common 
sense was "a conspicuous part of his 
character." Of how many of the others 
would it ever have occurred to any one 
to say the like ? 

He seems not to have been either 
crotchety or boastful, though he believed 
in aiming high, and made no scruple of 
professing, in so many words, that he 
"would rather fail than not be among the 
greatest." Born fighter that he was, born, 
too, of the genus irritabile vatum ("when 
I have any little vexation," he once wrote, 
with Lamb-like exaggeration, "it grows 
in five minutes into a theme for Sopho- 
cles"), he loved peace, and in the Biblical 
phrase pursued it, for which Mr. Arnold, 
it is pleasant to see, awards him full 
credit ; but he was not to be trodden upon, 
he held the popular judgment of poetry 
in something like contempt (as all poets 
do, it is to be presumed), and he would not 
be crowded too hard even by the chief est 



A RELISH OF KEATS 211 

of his brethren. The most thoroughgoing 
Wordsworth ian must read with amuse- 
ment, if not witli temptations to applause, 
the few clever sentences in which the 
youthful aspirant for poetic honors, in one 
of his letters, hits off some of that great 
man's foibles. He has no thought of deny- 
ing Wordsworth's grandeur, he declares; 
but not for the sake of a few fine imagi- 
native or domestic passages will he "be 
bullied into a certain philosophy engen- 
dered in the whims of an egoist." "Every 
man," he goes on, "has his speculations, 
but every man does not brood and pea- 
cock over them till he makes a false coin- 
age and deceives himself. . . . We hate 
poetry that has a palpable design upon 
us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put 
its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry 
should be great and unobtrusive, a thing 
which enters into one's soul, and does not 
startle it or amaze it with itself — but 
with its subject. How beautiful are the 
retired flowers! — how would they lose 
tlicir beauty were they to throng into the 
highway, ci-ying out, 'Admire me, I am a 
violet! Dote upon me, I am a primrose! '" 



212 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

To another correspondent he expresses 
a fear that Wordsworth has gone away 
from town "rather huffed" about some- 
thing or other, the nature of which does 
not precisely appear; but adds that he 
ought not to expect but that every man 
of worth should be "as proud as him- 
self;" a remark concerning which we 
are bound to acknowledge, loyal Words- 
worthians as within reason we esteem 
ourselves, that we rather like the sound 
of it. 

An artist cannot well be without some 
of the defects — or what more steady- 
going, lower-flying people are wont to 
account the defects — that go naturally, 
if not of necessity, with the artistic tem- 
perament. For one thing, he must work 
more or less by fits and starts. Poems are 
not to be made — unless it be by a Sou they 
— as a shoemaker makes shoes, so many 
strokes to the minute. It is a wonder how 
much Keats accomplished in his few years, 
and this even if we take no reckoning of 
his experiments and failures ; but there 
were times, of course, when he could do 
nothing, and then, equally of course, he 



A RELISH OF KEATS 213 

could invent the prettiest kind of excuses 
for himself, excuses that were themselves 
hardly less than works of genius. At such 
a minute he would say, for instance, 
"Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love 
have any alertness of countenance as they 
pass by me; they seem rather like figures 
on a Greek vase." Or, if the beauty of 
the morning operated upon a sense of 
idleness, he would declare it "more noble 
to sit like Jove than to fly like Mercury." 
"Let us open our leaves like a flower," he 
would say, "and be passive and receptive; 
budding patiently under the eye of Apollo 
and taking hints from every noble insect 
that favors us with a visit. ... I have 
not read any books — the Morning said 
I was right — I had no idea but of the 
Morning, and the Thrush said I was right 
— seeming to say, — 

*' ' O fret not after knowledge — I have none, 

And yet my song comes native with the warmth, 
O fret not after knowledge — I have none, 
And yet the Eyening Hstens.' " 

Not that he was ever fooHsh enough to 
despise knowledge, or trust overmuch to 
impulses "from a vernal wood," as if a 



214 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

poet could subsist on inspiration. A few 
weeks after the date of the letter just 
quoted, a letter which he himself quali- 
fied before he was done as "a mere so- 
phistication," we find him renouncing a 
proposed pleasure trip. There is but one 
thing to prevent his going, he tells his 
correspondent. "I know nothing," he 
says, "I have read nothing, and I mean to 
follow Solomon's directions, 'Get learn- 
ing, get understanding.' I find earlier days 
are gone by — I find that I can have no 
enjoyment in the world but continual 
drinking of knowledge. . . . There is but 
one way for me. The road lies through 
application, study, and thought. I will 
pursue it." 

But as we counted it fortunate that he 
had already had the courage to forsake 
everything else for the pursuit of poetry, 
so we must be thankful that now, feel- 
ing his educational deficiencies, he did not 
do what nine professors out of ten, had 
he had the ill-fortune to consult them, 
would — very properly, no doubt — have 
advised him to do; that is to say, cease 
production for the time being and devote 



A RELISH OF KEATS 215 

himself to study. That would have been 
a loss irreparable. His sun was so soon 
to go down ! A mercy it was that he made 
hay while it shone. 

For much of the hay that he made was 
as good as the sun ever shone on. That 
it was a short season's crop may pass 
unsaid. It is not within the possibilities 
of human nature, however miraculously 
endowed, to be mature at twenty-five. 
Enough, surely, if at that age a man has 
done a good bit of work of the rarest, 
divinest quality, work that, within its range 
and scope, the greatest and ripest genius 
could never dream of bettering. That is 
Keats's glory. So much as that one need 
not be either a poet or a critic to affirm; 
the critics and poets have agreed to affirm 
it for us. If Tennyson said, as reported, 
that " Keats, with his high spiritual vision, 
would have been, if he had lived, the great- 
est of us all; there is something magical 
and of the innermost soul of poetry in 
almost everything which he wrote; " and 
if Arnold put him, in two words, "with 
Shakespeare," why, then, for the present, 
at least, the case is judged, and we who 



216 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

are neither poets nor critics, but only 
tasters and relishers, can have no call to 
argue it. 

So much being admitted, however, it is 
not to be assumed that here is an end 
of things. One may still like to talk a 
little. Hearing him praised, one may still 
say, — 

""Tis so, 'tis true,' 
And to the most of praise add something more." 

Life would be a dull affair for the smaller 
men if comment and side remark were 
forever debarred as soon as the bigwigs 
had settled the main contention. 

Leaving on one side, then, the odes and 
other pieces which by universal consent 
are perfect, or as nearly so as consists with 
human frailty,^ let us content ourselves 
with intimating the profit which readers 
of a proper youthfulness and other need- 
ful, not over-critical, qualifications may 

^ We speak thus without forgetting that an American poet 
once wrote (what a reputable American periodical printed) a 
revised version of one of the odes, just to show how easily Keats 
could be improved upon. The good man might have been, though 
we believe he was not, brother to the one of whom we have all 
heard, who declared his opinion that there were n't ten men in 
Boston who could have written Shakespeare's plays. 



A RELISH OF KEATS 217 

iierive from some of the other and longer 
poems, which by the same common con- 
sent, as well as by the acknowledgment 
of the man who wrote them, are in every 
sense imperfect. 

Indeed, there are few things in Keats 's 
letters more interesting in themselves, or 
more characteristic of their author, than 
his apologies for these same longer pieces, 
especially for " Endymion." 

"Why endeavor after a long poem?" 
he has heard some one ask. And this is 
his answer : — 

"Do not the lovers of poetry like to 
have a little region to wander in, where 
they may pick and choose, and in which 
the images are so numerous that many 
are forgotten and found new in a second 
reading; which may be food for a week's 
stroll in the summer.^ Do not they like 
this better than what they can read through 
before Mrs. Williams comes downstairs ? a 
morning work at most." 

Evidently his "lovers of poetry" are of 
the tribe of those whose practice we have 
heard him describing as "a sparing touch 
of noble books;" lovers rather than critics 



218 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

or students; browsers and ruminators; not 
determined upon devouring whole forests, 
or even entire trees, but content with get- 
ting here and there the goodness of a leaf 
or the sweetness of a blossom. He fore- 
sees that "Endymion" is doomed to be 
in one way a failure; he knows that his 
mind at present, in its nonage, is "like 
a pack of scattered cards." The words 
are his own. Yet he conJSdes that there 
will be poetry in his long poem, and that 
the right spirits will find it. And so they 
do. He has touched their disposition to 
a nicety. They love to "wander in it." 
They may never have tried very hard to 
follow the story; they may not care to 
read any special student's supposed dis- 
coveries as to just how this part of the 
action is related to that or the other. But 
they like the poetry. They never read the 
poem, or read in it, without finding some. 
They do not wish it shorter, nor are they 
conscious of any very sharp regret that 
it is not better. Wisely or unwisely, they 
accept it as it is, and are thankful that the 
young man wrote it, and, having written 
it, took nobody's advice against printing 



A RELISH OF KEATS 219 

it. If they read in it, as we say, why, that 
is mostly what they do with the ** Fairy 
Queen" and "Paradise Lost." It may be 
the fault of the poem, or it may be the 
fault of the reader; or it may be nobody's 
fault. 

In the case of "Endymion," indeed, it 
requires no exceptional acumen to perceive 
that the work hangs feebly together, that 
its construction, its architectonic, if that 
be the word, is defective past all mend- 
ing. "Utterly incoherent," is Mr. Arnold's 
dictum, and for ourselves we have no in- 
clination to dispute him. Our fault or the 
poet's, we have always found it so. But 
like Mr. Arnold, we feel the breath of 
genius blowing through it, and therefore, 
as we say, we find in it not infrequently an 
hour of good reading. 

Such reading, it has sometimes seemed 
to us (and the poet's apology, now we 
think of it, '^omes to much the same 
thing), is like walking in a forest, where 
we cannot see the wood for the trees. 
All about us they stand, dwindling away 
and away as we look, till, whichever way 
we turn, there is no looking farther. 



220 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

Above our heads is a canopy of interlac- 
ing branches, — 

" over wove 
By many a summer's silent fingering," — 

through which, densely as it is woven, 
steals here and there a sunbeam to play 
upon the carpet underneath. In such a 
place we know little and care less whither 
we may be going. Standing still is a good 
progress. Not a step but something offers 
itself, — a flower, a bed of moss, a trail- 
ing, berry-covered vine, a tuft of ferns. A 
brook talks to us, a bird sings to us, a 
vista invites us, a leafy spray, as we brush 
against it, whispers of beauty and the 
summer. These, and trifles like these, 
are what we could specify. All of them 
together do not make the forest, yet the 
least of them is not only part of the for- 
est, but is what it is because of the forest. 
The soul of the forest speaks through it. 
How incomparably significant becomes of 
a sudden every common sound. If two 
branches but rub together, we must stop 
and listen. If a thrush whistles, we could 
stand forever to hear it. Not a sight or 
sound of them all would mean the same. 



A RELISH OF KEATS 221 

or anything like the same, if it were en- 
countered in the open and by itself. It is 
the old lesson. The sparrow's note must 
come from the alder bough, the shell must 
be seen on the beach with the tide rippling 
over it. 

And the magical verse, if it is to exer- 
cise its full charm, must be found, not in 
a book of extracts, nor as a fragment, but 
at home in its native surroundings. It 
must have been born in the poem, and we 
must discover it there! The poem which 
has made the verse must also have put 
us into the mood to receive it. How often 
have all readers found this true by its op- 
posite. How often a line quoted is a line 
from which the glory seems to have de- 
parted, a line de'payse! — as the tree, the 
bird, the leaf, if we see them in the open 
countiy and in the mood of the open coun- 
try, can never be the same as if we saw 
them in the forest and in the mood which 
the forest induces. 

We til ink, then, that the poet's plea is 
sound; tliat his long poem, whatever its 
shortcomings, is abundantly justified as a 
good place to wander about in; that there 



222 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

is poetry (one of the rare things of the 
world) in it which never would have been 
produced elsewhere, and which, now that 
it has been produced, can only be appre- 
ciated when read, as scientific men say, 
in situ. To transfer its beauties to a com- 
monplace book would be like putting roses 
into a herbarium, or, more justly, perhaps, 
like setting a seashell on a parlor mantel. 

In the long poem, too, as in the forest, 
though we were near forgetting to speak 
of it, there is always the chance of finding 
something unexpected; a line, an epithet, 
an image, that seems to have come into 
being since we were last here. Every peru- 
sal is thus a kind of voyage of discovery. 
It is as if the season had changed. New 
flowers have blossomed, new birds have 
come from the South, and the wood is a 
new place. 

In all the work of genius, as we began 
by saying, there is no small part that seems 
to come from almost anywhere rather than 
from the mind and intention of the writer. 
And the more genius, we must believe, the 
more of this appearance of what is known 
(or unknown) as inspiration. Yet, in the 



A RELISH OF KEATS 

case of Keats, a man of genius all com- 
pact, one has only to read his letters to 
see (and glad we must be to see it) that, 
for all his youthfulness and comparatively 
slight acquaintance with books, he was 
pretty well aware of himself, having withal 
a kind of philosophy of life and many 
shrewd ideas concerning the poetic art. 
His gift was no external, detachable thing, 
an influence of which he could give no 
account, and over which he had no con- 
trol, like, shall we say, the inscrutable, 
uncanny, unrelated mathematical faculty 
of a Zerah Colburn, a thing by itself, sig- 
nificant of no general capacity on the part 
of its possessor. The man himself was a 
genius. 

And being such, he was safest when he 
followed his own leadings. When he 
humbled himself to write what he hoped 
men would pay for, as, under pressure of 
his brother's and sister's need, he per- 
suaded himself he might do ("the very 
corn which is now so beautiful, as if it 
had only took to ripening yesterday, is 
for the market; so, why should I be deli- 
cate.^"), he was mostly wasting his time. 



224 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

"I have great hope of success," he writes, 
"because I make use of my judgment 
more dehberately than I have yet done." 
It was a vain dependence. " Live and 
learn," says the proverb. And, prose men 
or poets, the brightest must mind the les- 
son. But Keats, alas! could not live. He 
was "born for death," and was already 
marked. His work, the best of it, was 
already finished. Racked and broken, de- 
voured by the very madness of passion 
and wasting away with incurable disease, 
his tale henceforth is pure tragedy. If his 
passion was a weakness, — and no doubt 
it was, — to colder-blooded men a state of 
mind incredible, and to Pharisees and 
fools a thing to mock at, — so let us call 
it, and there be done. It was past cure, 
so much is certain. Here and there in his 
letters there are still gleams of brightness, 
sad touches of pleasantry. To his sister, 
about whose health he is continually in 
a fever, lest she should be going as his 
mother and his brother Tom have gone 
(and he himself far on the road), he is 
always a little improved, always mak- 
ing the most of the doctor's words of 



A RELISH OF KEATS 225 

encouragement; but between times, to some 
other correspondent, he shows for a mo- 
ment the plague that is consuming his hfe. 
It is heart-breaking to hear him. " If I had 
any chance of recovery, this passion would 
kill me." He cannot name the one of 
whom he is night and day thinking. "I 
am afraid to write to her — to receive a 
letter from her — to see her handwriting 
would break my heart." Even to see her 
name written would be more than he could 
bear. **Oh, Brown, I have coals of fire 
in my breast. It surprises me that the 
human heart is capable of containing and 
bearing so much misery." 

And strange it is how cruel a price a 
man can be made to pay for what, at the 
worst, is only a piece of natural foolish- 
ness. 

*' Well and wisely said the Greek, 
Be thou faithful, but not fond; 
To the altar's foot thy fellow seek, 
The Furies wait beyond.'* 

Never man found this truer than Keats. 

There is but one letter more, — dated 
a month later, and addressed to the same 
friend. This time the dying man knows 



226 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

that he is taking leave, though he still 
quotes a doctor's soothing diagnosis. He 
is bringing his philosophy to bear, he says; 
if he recovers, he will do thus and so; but 
if not, all his faults will be forgiven. And 
then: "Write to George [his brother] as 
soon as you receive this, and tell him how 
I am, as far as you can guess ; and also a 
note to my sister, who walks about my 
imagination like a ghost, she is so like 
Tom. I can scarcely bid you good-bye, 
even in a letter. I always made an awk- 
ward bow. God bless you!" 

How wasteful is Nature ! Once or twice 
in an age, one man out of millions, she 
brings forth a poet ; and then, while his 
powers are still budding, she sends on 
them a sudden blight, and anon cuts him 
down. Wasteful, we say. But who can 
tell ? Perhaps she also, like the rest of us, 
is doing what she can, and, like the rest 
of us, is disappointed when she fails. 



ANATOLE FRANCE 



ANATOLE FRANCE 

M. Anatole France is a writer who is 
continually saying something. His thought 
is always breaking into bloom. He is not 
one of those who, on the ground of weight- 
iness of matter, or other supposed excel- 
lence, have taken out a license to be dull. 
All his pages have light in them. His read- 
ers not only know in which direction they 
are going, — a great comfort, not always 
vouchsafed to such travelers, — but are 
made to enjoy the journey, having a thou- 
sand sights to look at by the way. It is 
an author's business, he considers, to make 
his truth beautiful; and nothing is beauti- 
ful but what is easy. An artist who knows 
his trade will "not so much exact attention 
as surprise it." 

It sounds like a good creed; and the 
style of his writing answers to it. Its qual- 
ities are the classical French qualities, 
— neatness, precision, ease, moderation^ 
lightness of touch, lucidity. In sum, it is 



230 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

such a style as comes of good breed- 
ing. He is clever without being smart, 
and pointed without emphasis. As for 
that dreadful something which goes by 
the name of rhetoric, you may search 
his twenty-odd volumes through without 
jBnding trace of it. His method is old- 
fashioned, his masters are the old mas- 
ters. Brilliancy, surprise, felicities, origi- 
nalities, — yes, indeed, he has all these 
and more, but he knows how to wear 
them They are all natural to him. " Ele- 
gant, facile, rapid," he says; "there you 
have the perfect politeness of a writer." 
Obscurity, difficulty, is to his way of 
thinking but a kind of bad manners. 

He was born to enjoy beautiful things, 
one would say ; elected before the cradle to 
a life of scholastic quietness and leisure : 
a dilettante and a saunterer, loving old 
streets, old shops, old books, the old litera- 
tures, fond of out-of-the-way and useless 
learning, the very type and pattern of 
an aimless reader and dreamer. And so, 
to take his word for it, he appears to 
have begun. Those were his best days. 
Then he was most himself. So, in certain 



ANATOLE FRANCE 231 

moods, at least, it seems to him now. 
Of that time he is thinking when he says, 
"I hved happy years without writing. I 
led a contemplative and solitary life, the 
memory of which is still infinitely sweet 
to me. Then, as I studied nothing, I 
learned much. In fact, it is in strolling 
that one makes beautiful intellectual and 
moral discoveries." 

The old book-stalls on the Paris quays, 
— one wonders how many scores of times 
he has an affectionate word to say for 
them in his various books. Even in one 
of the earlier essays of " La Vie Litteraire " 
he apologizes for what is already becom- 
ing a frequent reference. "Let me tell 
you," he breaks out, "that I can never 
pass over these quays without experi- 
encing a trouble full of joy and sadness, 
because I was born here, because I spent 
my childhood here, and because the fa- 
miliar faces that I saw here formerly are 
now forever vanished. I say this in spite 
of myself, from a habit of saying simply 
what I think, about that of which I think. 
One is never quite sincere without being 
a little wearisome. But I have a hope that. 



232 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

if I speak of myself, those who listen to 
me will think only of themselves; so that 
I shall please them while pleasing myself. 
I was brought up on this quay in the 
midst of books, by humble and simple 
people, of whose memory I am the only 
guardian. When I am gone they will be as 
if they had never been. My soul is all 
full of their relics." 

He runs a risk of being wearisome, he 
says. But that is merely a grace-note of 
French politeness, to be taken as it is 
meant, and answered after its kind. In- 
deed, he knows better. It was he who said 
of Renan that his most charming book 
was his little volume of youthful remi- 
niscence, because he had put most of him- 
self into it. And of M. Anatole France it 
is equally true that although he has an 
abundance of ideas, and loves not only his 
own past but the past of the world, — 
especially of all mystics, heretics, skeptics, 
enthusiasts, and saints, — yet he never 
comes quite so close to his reader as when 
his talk grows most intimate. It is what 
we who read are always after, the man 
behind the pen. If he will really tell us 



ANATOLE FRANCE 233 

about himself, about his inner, true self, 
which we blindly feel must be somehow 
very like another self, more interesting still, 
with which we seldom succeed in coming 
face to face, although, according to the 
accepted theory of things, it is, or ought 
to be, our nearest neighbor, — if he will 
really tell us something, little matter what, 
that is actually true about himself, we 
will sit up till morning to listen to him. 
It seems an easy way to be interesting, 
does it not ? And so indeed it is, for the 
right man ; for the really fine things are 
always easy, — if one can do them at 
all. 

There intrudes the doubt; for if suc- 
cess in personal reminiscence is easy, fail- 
ure is ten times easier. Of course a man 
must have taste, an innate or well-bred 
sense of the fitness of things; and so a 
brook must have banks, to save it from 
degeneration and loss. But what if the 
stream itself be muddy, if it have no move- 
ment, no sparkle, no variety, if it do not 
by turns ripple over sunny shallows, loiter 
in comfortable eddies, and deepen and 
darken in dream-inviting pools ? Or what 



234 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

if the banks be straight-cut and formal, 
till what should have been a brook is little 
better than a ditch ? What if taste has 
become propriety, and propriety has hard- 
ened into primness, and the writing or the 
talk is without the breath of life? Yes, 
success is easy, and it is also impossible. 
As the art of man never made a mountain 
brook, so instruction never by itself made 
a writer. The rain must fall from heaven, 
and readability (and hearability likewise, 
since writing and talking are but two 
forms of the one thing) must come from 
the same source, or, as Emerson said, by 
nature. 

If a man is to disclose himself, he must 
first have known something about him- 
self, a pitch of intelligence by no means 
to be taken for granted; he must be one 
of the relatively few who are affectionately 
cognizant of their own feelings, who de- 
light in their own view of things, who have 
felt, loved, suffered, and enjoyed, to whom 
life and the world have been inwardly real 
and interesting, for whom their own past 
especially is like a fair landscape, here in 
full sunshine, there flecked with shadows, 



ANATOLE FRANCE 235 

but all a picture of loveliness and a thing 
to dream over. 

In reminiscence, as in painting, the 
subject must be somewhat removed, loss 
of detail yielding a gain in beauty, since, 
in the one case, as in the other, what we 
seek is not an inventory, but a picture. 
This, or something like this, is what Re- 
nan had in mind when in beginning his 
*' Souvenirs" he remarked that what a man 
says of himself is always poetry. For his 
own part, he declares, he has no thought 
of furnishing matter for post-mortem bio- 
graphical sketches. He is going to tell 
the truth (mostly), but not the kind of 
truth of which biography is made. Bio- 
graphy and personal reminiscence are two 
things, and can never be written in the 
same tone. Many things, he tells us, have 
been put into his book on purpose to pro- 
voke a smile. If custom had permitted, 
he would more than once have written on 
the margin of the page: cum grano salis. 

One thinks of Charles Lamb, though 
in general the two men had wonderfully 
little in common. How dearly he loved to 
talk of himself, hiding the while behind 



236 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

some modestly transparent veil of mys- 
tification ! And how dearly we love to play 
the innocent game with him, seeing per- 
fectly what is going on, but, as children 
do, making pretense of being deceived. 
Better than almost any one else he had 
the winsome gift of half-serious, tenderly 
humorous self-disclosure. As Renan said, 
it is all poetry, and always with something 
to smile at. 

All this because of one of M. Anatole 
France's many stray bits of gossipy re- 
miniscence concerning the old quays of 
Paris and his boyish adventures among 
them! Such trifles are characteristic; they 
connote other qualities, and of themselves 
show us one side of the man and the 
writer. He loves his own life, especially 
his real life, the happy years that lie be- 
hind him. The power to see them is to 
him a matter of wonderment, a kind of 
miracle, a true fairy's gift. If he could 
see the future with the same distinctness, 
the fact would be hardly more astonish- 
ing, and probably it would be much less 
beneficent. So he tells himself in one of 
those rare and precious moods when the 



ANATOLE FRANCE 237 

soul seems preternaturally awake, and the 
commonest e very-day objects wear a look 
of newness and mystery till we are taken 
with a kind of inward shivering as if we 
had been seeing ghosts. 

For the more connected story of his 
youthful memories one must turn, of 
course, to the two volumes expressly de- 
voted to them, *' Le Livre de Mon Ami " and 
"Pierre Noziere." That he should have 
written two such books is significant of 
the hold that his childhood still has upon 
him. But the two are none too many. 
How delicious they are! — full of tender- 
ness and humor, every sentence true to 
the pitch, and the writing perfect. And 
how many pictures they leave with us! 
The woman in white and her lover with 
the black whiskers. The ragged street 
urchin, Alphonse, whom the well-fed, well- 
dressed house boy envied and pitied by 
turns, till one day he (the good boy) 
pilfered a bunch of grapes from the side- 
board, lowered them out of the window by 
a string, and called upon little Alphonse 
to take them; which the suspicious Al- 
phonse proceeded to do witii a sudden 



238 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

twitch at the cord (such rudeness!), after 
which, turning up his face to the window, 
he thrust out his tongue, put his thumb 
to his nose, and ran off with the dainty. 
"My Httle friends had not accustomed 
me to such fashions," the good boy con- 
fides to us. And then, to heighten his 
sense of disappointment (how commonly 
grown-up human benevolence is similarly 
disre warded!), he bethought himself that 
he must tell his mother of his pious theft. 
She would chide him, he feared. And like 
a good mother she did, but with laughter 
in her eyes. 

"'We ought to give away our own good 
things, not those of another,' she said; 'and 
we must know how to give.' 

" 'That is the secret of happiness,' added 
my father, 'and few know it.' 

"He knew it, my father." 

The books are full of such pictures, 
seen first by the child, and now seen 
again, losing nothing of their color, through 
the eyes of the man of forty; full, too, of 
a boy's dreams and ambitions. Now he 
will be a famous saint (like every boy, he 
is bound to be famous somehow), and 



ANATOLE FRANCE 239 

instantly he sets about it with fastings, 
an improvised hair shirt, and even an at- 
tempt, ingloriously brought to nought by 
the strong arms of the housemaid, to play 
the role of Simeon Stylites in the kitchen. 
What with this muscular, unsympathetic 
maid, — who also tore his hair shirt from 
him, — and his father, equally unsym- 
pathetic, who pronounced him "stupid," 
the boy had a bad day of it, and by 
night-fall, as he says, "recognized that it 
is very difficult to be a saint while living 
with one's family. I understood why St. 
Anthony and St. Jerome went into the 
desert to dwell among lions and satyrs; 
and I resolved to retire the next day to a 
hermitage." And so he did, choosing a 
labyrinth in the neighboring Jardin des 
Plantes. 

A few years later, wiser now and more 
worldly-minded, he is determined to set up 
catalogues like his old friend Father Le 
Beau; and soon (joy on the top of joy, 
and audacity almost past confession) he 
determines that he will some day print 
them, and read the proofs ! Beyond that 
he can conceive of no higher feHcity 



240 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

(though he has since learned, through the 
confidences of a blase literary acquaint- 
ance, that "one wearies of everything in 
this world, even of correcting proofs!"). 

Needless to say, he did not become a 
cataloguer, more than he had become a 
saint; but good Father Le Beau, for all 
that, determined his boyish admirer's vo- 
cation, inspiring him with "a love for the 
things of the mind and with a weakness 
for writing;" inspiring him, also, with a 
passion for the past and with "ingenious 
curiosities," and, by the example of intel- 
lectual labor regularly performed without 
fatigue and without worry, filling him 
from childhood with a desire to work and 
instruct himself. "It is thanks to him," 
he concludes, "that I have become in 
my own way a great reader, a zealous 
annotator of ancient texts, and a scrib- 
bler of memoirs that will never see the 

light." 

Good Father Le Beau! How plainly 
we can see him at his pleasant task, and 
the small boy beside him taking his les- 
son! And if any be ready to smile at the 
childish story, as if it were nothing but a 



ANATOLE FRANCE 241 

childish story, — well, there is difference 
in readers. To some, let us hope, the sim- 
ple adventures of a boy's mind, dreaming 
on things to come, will seem quite as en- 
tertaining, and even quite as instructive 
and morally profitable, as some more 
highly seasoned adventures of a man who 
covets his neighbor's wife, or a woman 
who covets her neighbor's husband. 

Of books recounting the pleasures and 
miseries of illicit passion modern literature 
surely suffers no lack; and truth to tell, 
M. Anatole France himself (the more's 
the pity) has contributed to an already 
full stock two or three examples not easily 
to be outdone in piquancy of situation 
or freedom of speech. Concerning these 
no account is to be taken here. Enough to 
say that they are unspeakable, — in Eng- 
lish, — though, not to do them injustice, 
it should be added that neither "Le Lys 
Rouge," nor even "Histoire Comique," for 
all its misleading, pleasant-sounding title, 
makes the path to the everlasting bonfire 
look in tlie remotest degree alluring. The 
old truth, old as man, that "to be car- 
nally minded is death," is nowhere more 



242 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

convincingly set forth than in the modern 
French novel, whether it be Balzac's, Flau- 
bert's, Maupassant's, Bourget's, or Ana- 
tole France's. 

It is unfortunate, we must think, for our 
author's reputation and vogue outside of 
his own country, that not only the two 
of his books just now named, but at least 
three others, though in a less degree, are 
unfitted for full translation into English, 
or even to be left in their original tongue 
upon the open shelves of public libraries 
or on the family table. But what then.? 
They were not written virginibus pueris- 
que, their author would say, and even their 
freest parts treat of nothing worse than 
every newspaper is obliged somehow to 
chronicle, however it may veil its language, 
and nothing worse, perhaps, than is readily 
allowed in the English classics, especially 
in the books of the Bible and the writings 
of Shakespeare. Wonderful is the effect 
of time and distance ! We gaze upon nude 
statues of the old Greeks and Romans 
without a shiver, but the representation 
of an American President bare only to 
the waist — as one may see, in all kinds 



ANATOLE FRANCE 243 

of weather, poor unhappy-looking George 
Washington sitting in front of the national 
eapitol — affects us with a painful sense 
of discomfort, not to say of positive inde- 
cency. 

M. Anatole France, as has been said, 
seems by birth and early predilection to 
have been devoted to a career of studious 
leisure. He would always be contented, 
one would have thought, to be a looker-on 
at the game of life, sitting by the wayside, 
book in hand, and watching the world 
go past ; taking it all as a show ; never 
so much as considering the possibility of 
entering for any of the prizes that more 
ambitious men run for, nor concerned very 
much as to who should win or who lose ; 
hardly so much as an observer ; a spec- 
tator rather, as he said himself; "in love," 
as he said again, "with the eternal illu- 
sion that wraps us round," but only as 
an illusion; cultivating his own garden, 
— like M. Bergeret, who dehghted to cut 
the leaves of books, esteeming it wise to 
make for one's self pleasures appropriate 
to one's profession; at the most a col- 
lector of old books, and a teller of old 



244 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

tales; a lover of Virgil, a disciple of Epi- 
curus, a friend of quietness, and a wor- 
shiper of the Graces. 

Such we imagine M. Anatole France to 
have been when he wrote his earlier vol- 
umes, including the one which the major- 
ity of readers would probably name as the 
most beautiful of them all, "Le Crime de 
Sylvestre Bonnard." The dear old savant 
tells his own story, talking now to his cat, 
now to his friendly despot of a house- 
keeper, now to good Madame de Gabry, 
now, best of all, to himself. The whole 
story is, as it were, overheard by the reader, 
and surely there never was, nor ever will 
be, a prettier revelation of an old man's 
soul. 

Like Renan, and like M. Anatole France, 
Sylvestre Bonnard, Member of the Insti- 
tute, has a natural sense of humor, and if 
he does not put into his narrative things 
on purpose to make us smile, it is only 
because he is in no way thinking of us. 
He smiles often enough himself, his own 
oddities and blunders as an absent-minded 
scholar — since, like Cowper's Mr. Bull, 
he ''has too much genius to have a good 



ANATOLE FRANCE 245 

memory" — providing him with abundant 
occasion ; and we smile with him. We love 
him for his goodness, and we listen de- 
lighted to all his philosophy. If he is not 
a saint, he is something better, — or if not 
better, more interesting and lovable, — a 
man so humanly sweet, so simple-hearted, 
so pure-minded, so bright in his talk, so 
admirable in his kindness, so adorable a 
confesser of his own foibles, that there is 
no resisting him. Dear old celibate! — 
who had loved a pair of blue eyes in his 
youth, and had been true to their mem- 
ory ever since! Verily, he had his reward. 
Never man awaited the sunset with a bet- 
ter grace. 

The man who drew this character was 
surely at peace with the world and with 
himself. Life had so far been to him 
mostly a fair-weather stroll in a pleasant 
country. And the same may be said, with 
some grains of qualification, of the man 
who wrote the weekly articles that went 
to the making of the four volumes of '*La 
Vie Litteraire." These are not things to 
last, it may be, like "Le Crime de Syl- 
vestre Bonnard," which, if one may be so 



246 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

simple as to prophesy, can hardly fail to 
become a classic; but for the present they 
must afford to many readers, if not a 
keener, yet a more various, delight. They 
are books of extraordinary interest, in 
whatever light one may view them. As 
we turn them over, remarking here and 
there the pages that at different times have 
especially pleased us, we find ourselves 
saying again and again, Oh, that we had 
such books in English, and on English 
subjects! If there were in Great Britain 
or in the United States a writer who could, 
week by week, furnish one of our news- 
papers with pieces of literary criticism 
or bookish causerie of this enchanting 
quality; so light, so graceful, so original, 
so suggestive, so full of happy surprises, 
so bright with humor and philosophy, so 
perfect in form and temper, and so sat- 
isfying in substance! Yes, if there were! 
How quickly we would all subscribe for 
that newspaper! The articles might deal, 
as M. Anatole France's often do, with 
books that we have never read and have 
no thought of reading; it would not greatly 
matter. If the subject in hand were no- 



ANATOLE FRANCE 247 

thing but a text-book or an encyclopsedia, 
a letter from an inquisitive correspondent, 
or a play of marionettes, the talk about it 
would be literature. And real literature, 
served to us fresh every Sunday morning! 
The very thought is an exhilaration. We 
are not to be understood as implying that 
excellent literaiy criticism is not more or 
less often written in English, and on both 
sides of the water. The question is not 
of moderately sound, reasonably instruc- 
tive, workmanlike articles, proper enough 
to be read and forgotten, but of essays 
full of charm, full of genius, full of poetry, 
— essays in which, to adapt a saying of 
Thorcau, we do not miss the hue of the 
mind, essays that of themselves are in 
the truest sense little masterpieces of the 
literary art. 

He had never thought of doing such 
tilings. His old publisher, Calmann Levy, 
"rather friend than puVjlisher," who had 
welcomed him in his obscurity, and smiled 
at his first humble successes, had for 
years been chiding his indolence and dun- 
ning him for another book. But he was 
in love with his idle ways and distrustful 



248 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

of his capacity. He was then living those 
"happy years without writing," of which 
we have seen him cherishing so fond a 
remembrance. But now came the manager 
of "Le Temps," a man accustomed to 
have his way, and behold, the dreamer's 
pen is again covering paper. "I believe 
you have a talisman," the new critic says 
to the editor, in dedicating to him the first 
of the four resulting volumes. "You do 
whatever you will. You have made of me 
Si periodical and regular writer. You have 
triumphed over my indolence. You have 
utilized my reveries and coined my wits 
into gold. I hold you for an incomparable 
economist." 

Such are the services of journalism to 
literature! A man never writes better, or 
more easily, than when regular work — 
not too pressing — keeps his hand in 
play. So Sir Walter Scott, hag-ridden by 
debt, if he finished a novel in the morning 
began another in the afternoon, because, 
as he explained, it was less difficult to 
keep the machine running than to start it 
again after a rest. 

In this same dedicatory epistle to M. 



ANATOLE FRANCE 249 

Hebrard are to be found some of the 
brightest and most characteristic things 
that M. Anatole France has ever written 
about his own nature and habits, as well 
as about his ideas of critics and criticism. 
For talking about himself, as we have 
before said, and as the reader must have 
discovered even from our few quotations, 
he has the prettiest kind of talent. "You 
are very easy to live with," he tells M 
Hebrard. **You never find fault with 
me. But I do not flatter myself. You saw 
at once that nothing great was to be ex- 
pected, and that it was best not to torment 
me. For that reason you left me to say 
what I pleased. One day you remarked 
of me to a common friend, — 
"'He is a mocking Benedictine.' 
''We understand ourselves very imper- 
fectly, l)ut I think your definition is a 
good one. I seem to myself to be a phi- 
losophical monk. At heart I belong to 
an alfl)aj/c de TJieleme, where the rule is 
comfortable and obedience easy, where 
one lias no great degree of faith, perhaps, 
but is sure to be very pious.*' 

There is nobody like a skeptic, he con- 



250 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

tiniies (he is echoing Montaigne), for al- 
ways observing the moralities and being 
a good citizen. "A skeptic never rebels 
against existing laws, because he has no 
expectation that any power will be able 
to make good ones. He knows that much 
must be pardoned to the Republic;" that 
rulers at the best count for little; that, 
as Montaigne said, most things in this 
world do themselves, the Fates finding 
the way. Still he advises his manager 
never to confide his political columns to 
any Thelemite. The gentle spirit of melan- 
choly that he would spread over every- 
thing would be a discouragement to honest 
readers. Ministers are not to be sustained 
by philosophy. ^"As for myself," he adds, 
'*I maintain a suitable modesty and re- 
strict myseK to criticism." 

And then, in two sentences, one of 
which has attained almost to the rank of 
a familiar quotation, he defines criticism 
and the critic. 

"As I understand it, and as you allow 
me to practice it, criticism, like philoso- 
phy and history, is a sort of romance, and 
all romance, rightly taken, is an autobio- 



ANATOLE FRANCE 251 

graphy. The good critic is he who narrates 
the adventures of his own mind in its 
intercourse with masterpieces." 

To be quite frank, he declares, the critic 
should begin his discourse by saying : 
"Gentlemen, I am going to speak about 
myself apropos of Shakespeare, apropos of 
Racine, or of Pascal, or of Goethe. It is 
a fine occasion." 

And here, of course, the battle is joined 
between the two schools of critics : the sub- 
jective, or impressionistic, so called, on one 
side, and the objective, or scientific, so 
called, on the other. 

Into this controversy (which, like many 
another, may yet turn out to be concerned 
with words rather than with things) we 
feel no call to enter. Like our author 
himself, we desire to maintain the modesty 
that is fitting to us. We content ourselves, 
therefore, with some random comments 
upon "La Vie Litteraire," which to our 
taste is one of the most delightfully read- 
able books of recent times. Having read it 
and reread it, we are (somewhat ignorantly, 
to be sure, having nothing like an ex- 
haustive acquaintance with universal cur- 



252 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

rent literature) very much of Mr. Edmund 
Gosse's opinion when he says of M. Ana- 
tole France that he is perhaps "the most 
interesting intelligence at this moment 
working in the field of letters." The word 
"perhaps," it will be noticed, is outside 
the double commas. A genuinely modest 
man likes to make a show of his modesty 
even in his use of quotations. 

Whether criticism in general, as critics 
in general write it, ought to be of one 
school or another, subject to personal 
impression or subject to rule, one thing 
is beyond dispute: the singular charm, 
one feels almost like saying the incom- 
parable charm, of "La Vie Litteraire " lies 
in its intimate, individual quality. It is 
not a set of formulas, nor even a thesau- 
rus of literary opinions and estimates. It 
is the voice of a man, speaking as a man. 
As you listen, you see his mind at work; 
you know what he thinks about, and how 
he thinks about it; what he enjoys best 
and oftenest, what trains his reveries 
naturally fall into; how the world looks 
to him, past, present, and future. He does 
not set himself to reveal himself; when 



ANATOLE FRANCE 253 

men do that, they mostly fail; his mind 
plays before you. Above all things, he is 
an ironist. There is nothing, least of all 
anything in himself or concerning him- 
self, that he cannot smile at, though there 
may be tears in his eyes at the same mo- 
ment. He admires, and can perfectly 
express his admiration; and when he de- 
spises, he is no more at a loss. The more 
he knows, the more he is ignorant, — 
and the more he wonders. He is full of 
modern knowledge, and he loves of all 
things a fairy tale. Shakespeare delights 
him, and he cannot say well enough nor 
times enough how greatly he enjoys the 
marionettes. 

It can hardly have been an accident (and 
yet, for aught we know, it may have been, 
since accident often seems to be no more 
foolish than the rest of us) that his first 
*' Times" essay was concerned with a re- 
presentation of "Hamlet," and the second 
with the latest story of M. Jules Lemaitre. 
Both the Danish prince and the martyr 
Serenus were men oppressed and finally 
overcome by a sense of the mystery of 
things, having ideas, almost in excess, and 



254 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

being so skillful in debate that they could 
never come to a conclusion. Like horses 
and politicians, they needed blinders, and 
for lack of them could not keep a straight 
course. 

Both make a lively appeal to our crit- 
ic's sympathy. In his own way he is suf- 
ficiently like them. And so what ought, 
on one theory, to have been a dissertation 
upon Shakespeare's conception of Ham- 
let's character, runs of its own will into 
^n address to the Dane himself. He is so 
real to the Frenchman that the two go 
home together, as it were, after the play, 
and the Frenchman, having sat silent so 
long, finds his heart full and his tongue 
suddenly unloosed. 

First he must apologize to Hamlet for 
the audience, some part of which, as he 
may have noticed, seemed a trifle inatten- 
tive and light. Hamlet must not lay this 
to heart. "It was an audience of French- 
men and Frenchwomen," he should re- 
member. "You were not in evening dress, 
you had no amorous intrigue in the world 
of high finance, and you wore no flower 
in your buttonhole. For that reason the 



ANATOLE FRANCE 255 

ladies coughed a little in their boxes while 
eating candied fruits. Your adventures 
could not interest them. They were not 
worldly adventures; they were only human 
adventures. Besides, you force people to 
think, and that is an offense which will 
never be pardoned to you here." 

Still there were a few among the spec- 
tators who were profoundly moved, a few 
by whom the melancholy Dane is preferred 
before all other beings ever created by the 
breath of genius. The critic himself, by 
a happy chance, sat near one such, M. 
Auguste Dorchain. "He understands you, 
my prince, as he understands Racine, be- 
cause he is himself a poet." 

And then, after a little, he concludes by 
confiding to Hamlet what a mystery and 
contradiction the world continues to find 
him, though he is the universal man, the 
man of all times and all countries, though 
he is exactly like the rest of us, '*a man 
living in the midst of universal evil." It 
is just because he is like the rest of us, 
indeed, that we find his character a thing 
so impossible to grasp. It is because we 
do not understand ourselves that we can- 



256 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

not understand him. His very inconsis- 
tencies and contradictions are the sign of 
his profound humanity. "You are prompt 
and slow, audacious and timid, benevolent 
and cruel ; you believe and you doubt ; 
you are wise, and above everything else you 
are insane. In a word, you live. Who 
of us does not resemble you in some- 
thing ? Who of us thinks without contra- 
diction, and acts without inconsistency .? 
Who of us is not insane ? Who of us but 
says to you with a mixture of pity, of sym- 
pathy, of admiration, and of horror, ' Good- 
night, sweet prince; and flights of angels 
sing thee to thy rest!'" 

This may not be great Shakespearean 
criticism; certainly it bears no very strik- 
ing resemblance to the ordinary German 
article that walks abroad under that name; 
but at least it is good reading, and so far 
as may be possible in a few sentences, it 
may be thought to go somewhat near to 
the heart of the matter. 

As for the Serenus of M. Jules Le- 
maitre, he, too, is a thinker and dreamer 
set to live in difficult conditions. He, too, 
is caught in contradictory currents, and 



ANATOLE FRANCE 257 

jBnds it impossible to make the shore. 
For him, as for Hamlet, death is the only 
way out. His creator, of whom M. Anatole 
France loves to talk, is himself a born 
skeptic, always asking, under one ingen- 
ious form and another, the question of the 
old Roman functionary, "What is truth ?'' 
and never getting an answer. Like his 
friend and critic, **he loves believers and 
believes not." It may have been he of 
whom it is remarked, somewhere, that 
he has "a mind full of ironic curiosity." 
We have been turning the volumes over 
in search of the phrase. We did not find 
it, but we found ourselves repeating the 
word with which we began: "M. Anatole 
France is a writer who is continually say- 
ing something." It seems to us truer than 
ever; and it seems a considerable merit. 

In the course of our search we fell 
anew upon the essay dealing with that 
amazing book, the ** Journal" of the Gon- 
court brothers. It is no very enlivening 
subject, one would say, but the essay is 
of the briglitest, sparkling from end to 
end with those "good things" concerning 
which the scientific critic may say what he 



258 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

will, so long as the impressionistic critic 
will be kind enough to furnish them for 
our delectation. As plain untheoretical 
readers, we are thankful to be interested. 

Of all books, as we know already, 
M. Anatole France believes in personal 
memoirs. In his opinion writers are sel- 
dom so likely to be well inspired as when 
they speak of themselves. La Fontaine's 
pigeon had good reason to say : — 

"Mon voyage depeint 
Vous sera d'un plaisir extreme. 
Je dirai: *J'etais la; telle chose m'avint:' 
Vous y croirez etre vous-meme." 

Even a cold writer like Marmontel gets 
a hold upon us "as soon as he begins 
to tell about a little Limousin who read 
the Georgics in a garden where the bees 
were murmuring," — because he was the 
boy, and the bees were those whose honey 
he ate, the same which he saw his aunt 
warming in the hollow of her hand, and 
refreshing with a drop of wine, when the 
cold had benumbed them. As for St. 
Augustine's "Confessions," so called, our 
essayist has no very exalted opinion of 
them. The great doctor, he thinks, hardly 



ANATOLE FRANCE 259 

confesses enough. Worse yet, he hates 
his sins; and, in the way of Hterature, 
"nothing spoils a confession Hke repent- 
ance." 

But Rousseau, ** poor great Jean- 
Jacques," "whose soul held so many mis- 
eries and grandeurs," — he surely made 
no half-hearted confession. "He acknow- 
ledged his own faults and those of other 
people with marvelous facility. It cost 
him nothing to tell the truth. However 
vile and ignoble it might be, he knew that 
he could render it touching and beauti- 
ful. He had secrets for that, the secrets 
of genius, which, like fire, purifies every- 
thing." 

But we must be done with quotation, 
though the matter that offers itself is fairly 
without end. Especially one would be 
glad to cite some of the essayist's remi- 
niscences of the men he has known : some 
of them famous, like Flaubert, "a pessi- 
mist full of enthusiasm," who "had the 
good part of the things of this world, in 
tliat he could admire;" Jules Sandeau, 
whom the critic, when a child, used to 
meet on the quays of Paris, which are "the 



260 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

adopted country of all men of thought and 
taste;" and dear old Barbey d'Aurevilly, 
so queerly dressed, so profane a believer, 
*'so frightfully Satanic and so adorably 
childish;" and others, — and these among 
the best, — two or three priests, in par- 
ticular, — never heard of except in our 
author's pages. 

One would like, also, to speak of his 
favorite heterodox theory touching the 
fallible nature of posterity as a judge of 
works of art; of the fun that he pokes so 
effectively at the new school of symbol- 
ists and decadents (small wonder they 
do not love him); of his ideas upon lan- 
guage, upon history, upon the grossness 
of Zola, — with which he as an artist has 
no patience, — upon the exalted rank of 
the critical essay, upon the educational 
value of the humanities. These and many 
other things have their place in the four 
volumes, and every one is touched with 
grace and something of originality. Every- 
where the personal note makes itself 
heard. It is a voice, not the scratching of 
a pen, that we listen to, the voice of a 
man who never forgets that he was once a 



ANATOLE FRANCE 261 

child. He has hved in Eden. We all begin, 
he tells himself, where Adam began. **In 
those blessed hours," he says, *'I have seen 
thistles springing up amid heaps of stones 
in little sunny streets where birds were 
singing; and I tell you the truth, it was 
Paradise." 

The two or three years during which 
he was contributing w^eekly articles to *'Le 
Temps" were not quite of this heavenly 
quality, we may safely presume; in the 
inevitable course of things the gates of 
Eden must for some time have been al- 
ready closed against him; but if one is 
to judge by his books of the period, mean- 
ing to inchide among them *'La Rotisserie 
de la Reine Pedauque," **Les Opinions de 
M. Jerome Coignard," and '*Le Jardin 
d'Epicure," — three of the best and most 
characteristic, tliough the two first named 
are not for readers afflicted with what a 
French critic calls pudeur livresque, — 
they were still years of quietness and a 
rcasonablv full content. Tie was writinc 
and studying more tlian formerly, to be 
sure, and of course, by his own showing, 
was learning so much the less; but, tak- 



262 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

ing everything into account, he and the 
world, for all its badness, were pulling 
pretty well together. 

Since then, somehow, we cannot pro- 
fess to know exactly how or why, a change 
appears to have come over him ; a change 
not altogether for the worse, nor alto- 
gether for the better. Life, in his eyes, is 
no longer so bright as it was. He is more 
serious, more satirical, less disposed to mind 
his rhyme and let the river run under the 
bridge ; a little out of conceit with his 
old role of saunterer and looker-on. He 
seems to have heard a drum-beat, and 
if there is to be a fight, he will, after a 
rather independent fashion of his own, 
bear a hand in it. Perhaps this is the 
manlier part. At all events, there is no 
quarreling with it-, and the evil days on 
which Anatole France has fallen (" le per- 
fide Anatole France,'-' as we are told that 
his political enemies — a strange word for 
use in connection with the author of "Syl- 
vestre Bonnard" and "Le Jardin d'^pi- 
cure" — are accustomed to call him) have 
borne their full share of fruit. 

His second manner, to call it so, is like 



ANATOLE FRANCE 263 

his first in this regard, that its most suc- 
cessful creation is an old scholar. M. 
Bergeret is Sylvestre Bonnard with a dif- 
ference, as the present Anatole France is 
the old Anatole France with a difference. 
It strikes us as almost a pleasantry of 
Fate that these two leading characters 
should stand thus as representatives of 
their creator's two selves, or, if one pre- 
fers to express it so, of their creator's one 
self in his two periods of calm and storm. 
Sylvestre Bonnard's life ran an even 
course. Its incidents were no more than 
the windings and falls of a quiet brook, 

— just enough to keep it wholesomely 
alive and give, it a desirable diversity and 
picturesciueness. The world was good to 
him; and he thanked it. If he did not 
marry the girl with the pair of blue eyes, 

— the eyes dc pcrvcncJiey — he was Iiappier 
in his bachelorhood than the majority of 
men are in their married condition, and 
doubly happy toward the last, when time 
and chance (with more or less of human 
assistance) brought him his heart's desire 
in the opportunity to care for his lost Cle- 
mentine's grandchild. His i)rofessional 



264 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

successes were according to his taste: he 
was a member of the Institute, an author- 
ity upon ancient texts, and in his old age 
the happy author of a book upon a new 
hobby. 

Such was the hfe of a savant as M. Ana- 
tole France conceived it before the world 
was too much with him, before " National- 
ists" and "Royahsts" had begun to look 
askance upon him, and call him traitor. 

M. Bergeret, like M. Bonnard, is a man 
of kindly nature, a scholar, and a lover of 
peace, but life to him, as to Shelley, has 
been "dealt in another measure;" a dis- 
loyal wife, uncongenial daughters, squalor 
in his house, disappointment in his call- 
ing, lack of favor with his colleagues and 
superiors, and, to fill his cup, the Dreyfus 
controversy, which makes him a target 
for stoning. 

And in the midst of it all, notwithstand- 
ing it all, what a dear old soul, and what 
an interesting talker! — so amiably philo- 
sophical, so keen in his thrusts, so sly in 
his humor, so fond of good company, his 
own and his dog's included, and, in spite 
of his weaknesses, so equal to the occa- 



ANATOLE FRANCE 265 

sion! If he is irreligious, according to his 
neighbors' standards, it is at least "with 
decency and good taste." 

The four volumes in which he figures 
(''HistoireContemporaine," they are jointly 
called), like all the works of their author, 
are crammed with clever sayings. There 
is no great story, of course, though some 
of the incidents are many shades too lively 
to be set in modest English type; but the 
characterization and the dialogue are of 
the best, — in tlie good Yankee sense of 
the word, "complete." 

For its full appreciation the book — 
it is really one, in spite of its four titles — 
demands a more familiar acquaintance 
with the ins and outs of current French 
politics than the average American reader 
is likely to bring to it. There are so many 
wheels within wheels, and the intrigues 
are made, of set jnirpose on the author's 
[)art, to turn upon desires and considera- 
tions so almost incredibly sordid and petty! 
It is a comedy; we are bound to laugh; but 
it is also a horror, and is meant to be. 
Sal ire was never more biting. The game 
of provincial politics, bisho[)-making and 



266 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

all, is played with merciless particularity 
before the reader's eyes ; and if he fails to 
follow some of the moves with perfect in- 
telligence, he sees only too well the small- 
ness and baseness and cruelty of the whole ; 
a game in which a matron's honor is no 
more than a pawn upon the chessboard, 
to be given and taken without so much as 
an extra pulse-beat, even an extra pulse- 
beat of her own. If it be true, or within a 
thousand miles of true, — well, to repeat 
the saying of one of old, a critic accounted 
wise in his day, "man hath no preemi- 
nence above a beast!" 

Poor M. Bergeret! He ought to have 
been so happy! Like his human creator, 
he was born for life in a cloister, some 
Abbaye de Theleme, where he should 
have had nothing to do but to read his 
books, say his prayers, mind a few cab- 
bages, perhaps, and be quiet; and instead 
of that, here he is passing his days in 
such a turmoil that he experiences a kind 
of joy on finding himself in the street, the 
one place where he gets a taste of ''that 
sweetest of good things, philosophical lib- 
erty." And with all the rest of his tribula- 



ANATOLE FRANCE 267 

tions there falls upon him that dreadful 
nightmare of the Dreyfus case. Neither 
he nor his neighbors can let it alone. It 
is like the bitterness of aloes in all their 
conversation. 

One resource he still has; one neigh- 
bor, better still, one housemate, with 
whom he can discuss anything, even the 
"Affaire," with no risk of being stoned 
or misunderstood. His dog Riquet, though 
he "does not understand irony" (a con- 
genital deficiency, it must have been, 
with such opportunities), is to our Maitre 
de Conferences a la Faculte des Lettres 
a true friend in need. For that matter, 
indeed, M. Bergeret is probably not the 
only man who has found it one of the 
best points in a dog's favor that you can 
say to him anything you please. If your 
human neiglibor stands in perishing need 
of wholesome trutli, or if you stand in 
sore need of expressing it to him, and if 
there lia{){)ens to be some not unnatural 
unwliniif]^n(\ss on his part, or some mo- 
mentary lack of courage on yours, why, 
you have only to deliver your message to 
him vicariously, as it were, to the sensible 



268 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

relief of your own mind, if not to the edi- 
fication of his. 

"Riquet," said M. Bergeret, after a vain 
endeavor to make one of his brother pro- 
vincials submit himself to reason, "Riquet, 
your velvety ears hear not him who speaks 
best, but him who speaks loudest." And 
Riquet, well used to his master's conversa- 
tional eccentricities, took the compliment 
in good part ; in much better part, at 
all events, than any human interlocutor 
would have been likely to take it. For 
really, unless one actually lost one's temper, 
one could not say just that to a neighbor 
and equal, especially if it happened to be 
true. 

For a heretic living among the ortho- 
dox there is nothing like keeping a dog. 
So we were ready to say and leave it; 
but we bethink ourselves in season that 
there is a more excellent way. Keep a 
dog, if you will, but keep also the pen 
of a novelist. Then all your beliefs and 
half beliefs and unbeliefs, all your bene- 
volently contemptuous opinions of men 
and of men's institutions, all your trea- 
sures of irony and satire, dear as these 



ANATOLE FRANCE 269 

ever are to the man who possesses them, 
instead of being wasted upon a pair of 
velvety ears, may be trumpeted to the 
world at large tli rough the lips of a third 
party, a "character," so called, some M. 
Bergeret, if you can invent him, or an 
Abbe Coignard. 

It is one of the best reasons for read- 
ing fiction, by the way, provided it is 
written by a man of insight and force, 
that he is so much more likely to tell us 
what he tliinks when he is not compelled 
to speak in his own person. 

A happy lot is the novelist's. Such a 
more than angehc liberty as he enjoys, 
so comfortably irresponsible and blameless 
as he is, whatever happens! One thinks 
again of Jerome Coignard, concerning 
whom too little is finding its way into 
this paper. That grand old Christian 
and reprobate, as we know, could live 
pretty much as he listed, and hold pretty 
much such *' opinions" as pleased him, 
at ease all the wliile in the assurance that 
somewhere in a deep inner closet, fast 
under lock and key, he preserved a faith 
in the Christian mysteries so perfect and 



270 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

unsoiled — never having been subjected 
to any earthly contact — that the good 
St. Peter, when the inevitable time should 
come, would be sure to pass its posses'sor 
into the good place without a question. 

Yet it will never do for us to inti- 
mate that M. xlnatole France has sought 
to save either comfort or reputation by 
talking through a mask. His theological, 
political, and socialistic heresies, if you 
call them such, this being matter of opin- 
ion, have been too openly expounded, and 
have brought him, as has already been 
told, too many enemies and reproaches. 
The most that we started to say under 
this head was that the storms into which 
the currents of the world have drifted him 
are reflected in his ''Histoire Contempo- 
raine," especially in the diflFerence between 
his M. Bergeret and his M. Bonnard. 

Of the two, M. Bergeret has the greater 
philosophic interest for us, as well as the 
greater number of rememberable things 
to say to us. If the reader wishes to see 
him in two highly contrasted situations, 
let him turn to the wonderful chapter de- 
scribing his sensations and behavior imme- 



ANATOLE FRANCE 271 

diately after detecting his wife's infidelity, 
and the beautiful one in which he and 
his more practical sister visit together the 
old Paris mansion in which they had passed 
some portion of their childhood. They 
were house-hunting at the time, and the 
Master, falling into one of his far-away, 
philosophical moods, remarked, apropos 
of something or nothing : " Time is a 
pure idea, and space is no more real 
than time." "That may be so," answered 
his matter-of-fact, executive-minded sister, 
"but it costs more in Paris." 

Doctor Johnson called himself "an 
old struggler," and the words come un- 
bidden into our minds as we review M. 
Bergeret's story. To us, we must confess, 
the old Latin professor seems almost as 
real a personage as the Great Cham of lit- 
erature himself. We hope he is happy in 
his new post of honor at the Sorbonne. 
It was time, surely, that some of the quails 
and the manna should be found in his 
basket. 

And now it is pleasant to add, by way 
of ending, that the latest book of M. Ana- 
tole France seems to indicate that he also. 



272 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

as well as the man of his creation, has 
come out into a larger place. His mood 
is quieter and less satirical, though he is 
still many degrees more serious than in the 
old days of "Thais " and "Sylvestre Bon- 
nard." '' Sur la Pierre Blanche " is a work 
of the rarest distinction ; not a book for 
the casual reader to hurry over in pursuit 
of a story (in a loose way of speaking it 
may be characterized as a volume of ima- 
ginary conversations), but one to be cher- 
ished and dwelt upon by such as love the 
perfection of art and are not averse to 
knowing what kind of thoughts visit a free- 
thinking, humanity-loving man, of a phi- 
losophical, half-conservative, half-radical 
turn of mind, in these days of social and 
political unrest, as he looks back upon the 
origins of Christianity and forward into 
those new and presumably brighter eras 
which we who live now may dream of, but 
never see. 

The motto of the book explains the sig- 
nificance of its title: "You seem to have 
slept upon the white stone amongst the 
people of dreams." Toleration, the spread 
of peace, imperialism, the socialistic evolu- 



ANATOI.E FRANCE 273 

tion (following hard upon the capitalistic 
evolution, now at its height, or pass- 
ing), the yellow peril, so called, the white 
peril, the future of Africa, — these are some 
of the larger and timelier questions con- 
sidered. In general, the thoughts of the 
book are those of a scholar w^iose face is 
turned toward practical issues. The author 
is not concerned with any Utopia, — ab- 
solute justice, by his theory, being not a 
thing to be so much as hoped for, — but 
with some quite possible amelioration of 
the existing order, and some gradual, natu- 
ral, irresistible approaches (irresistible be- 
cause they are the work of Nature herself) 
toward a state of society less unequal, not 
to say less unendurable, than the present. 

Let those scoff who will; for ourselves 
we rejoice to see the man, like the boy, 
"dreaming on things to come." 

At the same time, we should not be 
sorry to believe that, in the heat of writ- 
ing, iind out of llie love, natural to all of 
us, of making facts conform to tlieory, 
we may ha\r hi id a thouglit too much of 
emphasis upon the alterations through 
which his mind has passed. His days, 



274 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

we suspect, have, after all, been pretty 
closely bound each to each by natural 
piety. We recall his fine saying about 
Renan, brought up in the Roman Church 
and dying an unbeliever, that he changed 
little. "He was like his native land, where 
clouds float across the sky, but the soil is 
of granite, and oaks are deeply rooted." 

Changed or unchanged, in his first 
manner or his second. Republican or 
Nationalist, socialist, anti-imperialist, "in- 
tellectual," or what not, who will refuse 
to read a writer who can express himself 
after such a fashion ? 



VERBAL MAGIC 



VERBAL MAGIC 

A MUSIC-LOVER and devoted concert-goer 
of my acquaintance — "uninstructed, but 
sensitive," to characterize him in his own 
words — is accustomed to say that he 
distinguishes several kinds of enjoyable 
music. One kind is interesting : here he 
puts the work of composers so unlike 
as Berlioz and Brahms. Another kind is 
exciting; under which head he ranks the 
greater part of Wagner and the Bach 
fugues! And still another kind is charming. 
Whenever he uses this last epithet, he adds 
an explanation, the word being now so 
worn by indiscriminate handling as hardly 
to pass by itself at its full face value. 
He means that the music thus described 
— heavenly music, he sometimes calls it 
(of which his typical example seems to 
be Schubert's unfinished symphony) — 
has upon him an indescribable ravishing 
effect, as if it really and literally charmed 
him. Exactly why this should be, he does 



278 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

not profess to decide. All such composi- 
tions are highly melodious and in some 
good degree simple; but then there is 
plenty of other excellent music to which 
the same terms seem to be equally ap- 
plicable, which nevertheless lays him 
under no such spell. "I don't undertake 
to explain it," he says; "so far as I am 
concerned, it is all a matter of feeling." 

Analogous to this is my own experi- 
ence — and, I suppose, that of readers 
in general — with certain fragments of 
poetry, which have for me an ineffa- 
ble and apparently inexhaustible charm. 
Other poetry is beautiful, enjoyable, stim- 
ulating, everything that poetry ought to 
be, except that it lacks this final some- 
thing which, not to leave it absolutely 
without a name, we may call magic. 
Whatever it be called, it pertains not to 
any poet's work as a whole, nor in strict- 
ness, I think, to any poem as a whole, 
but to single verses or couplets. And to 
draw the line still closer, verse of this 
magical quality — though here, to be sure, 
I may be disclosing nothing but my 
own intellectual limitations — is discover- 



VERBAL MAGIC 279 

able only in the work of a certain few 
poets. 

The secret of the charm is past find- 
ing out: so I like to believe, at all events. 
Magic is magic; if it could be explained, 
it would be something else; to use the 
word is to confess the thing beyond us. 
Such verses were never written to order or 
by force of will, since genius and our old 
friend — or enemy — "an infinite capacity 
for taking pains," so far from being one, 
are not even distantly related. The poet 
himself could never tell how such perfec- 
tion was wrought or whence it came; nor 
is its natural history to be made out by 
any critic. The best we can do with it is 
to enjoy it, thankful to have our souls 
refreshed and our taste purified by its 
"heavenly alchemy;" as the best that our 
musical friend can do with the unfinished 
symphony is to surrender himself to its 
fascination, and be carried by it, as I 
have heard him more than once express 
himself, up to "heaven's gate." 

And yet it is not in human nature to 
forego the asking of questions. The mind 
will have its inquisitive moods, and some- 



280 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

times it loves to play, in a kind of make- 
believe, with mysteries which it has no 
thought of solving, — a harmless and per- 
haps not unprofitable exercise, if entered 
upon modestly and pursued without illu- 
sions. We may wonder over things that 
interest us, and even go so far as to talk 
about them, though we have no expecta- 
tion of saying anything either new or final. 
Take, then, the famous lines from 
Wordsworth's ''Solitary Reaper:" — 

"Will no one tell me what she sings ? — 
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow 
For old, unhappy, far-off things, 
And battles long ago." 

The final couplet of this stanza is a typical 
example of what is here meant by verbal 
magic. I am heartily of Mr. Swinburne's 
mind when he says of it, "In the whole 
expanse of poetry there can hardly be two 
verses of more perfect and profound and 
exalted beauty;" although my own slender 
acquaintance with literature as a whole 
would not have justified me in so sweeping 
a mode of speech. The utmost that I could 
have ventured to say would have been 
that I knew of no lines more supremely. 



VERBAL MAGIC 281 

indescribably, perennially beautiful. Nor 
can I sympathize with Mr. Courthope in 
his contention that the lines are nothing 
in themselves, but depend for their *'high 
quality" upon their association with the 
image of the solitary reaper. On such a 
point the human consciousness may pos- 
sibly not be infallible; but at all events, it 
is the best ground we have to go on, and 
unless I am strangely deluded, my own 
delight is in the verses themselves, and not 
merely nor mainly in their setting. Yet 
of what cheap and common materials they 
are composed, and how artlessly they are 
put together! Nine every-day words, such 
as any farmer might use, not a fine word 
among them, following each other in the 
most unstudied manner — and the result 
perfection ! 

By the side of this example let us put 
another, equally familiar, from Shake- 
speare : — 

"We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on, and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep." 

Here, too, all the elements are of the 
plainest and commonest; and yet these 



282 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

few short, homely words, every one in its 
natural prose order, and not over-musi- 
cal, — "such stuff" and "little life" being 
almost cacophonous, — have a magical 
force, if I may presume for once to speak 
in Mr. Swinburne's tone, unsurpassable in 
the whole range of literature. We hear 
them, if we do hear them, and all things 
earthly seem to melt and vanish. 

Not unlike them in their sudden effec- 
tiveness is a casual expression of Burke's. 
For in prose also, and even in a politi- 
cal pamphlet, if the pamphleteer have a 
genius for words, an inspired and unex- 
pected phrase (and inspired phrases are 
always unexpected, that being one mark 
of their divinity) may take the spirit cap- 
tive. Thus, while Burke is talking about 
the troubles of the time, being now in the 
opposition, and blaming the government 
as in duty bound, suddenly he lets fall the 
words, "Rank, and oflSce, and title, and 
all the solemn plausibilities of the world;" 
and for me, I know not whether others 
may be similarly affected, politics and 
government are gone, an "insubstantial 
pageant faded." "All the solemn plausi- 



VERBAL MAGIC 283 

bilities of the world," I say to myself, and 
for the present, though I am hardly beyond 
the first page of the pamphlet, I care not 
to read further; like Emerson at the play, 
who had ears for nothing more after 
Hamlet's question to the ghost : — 

"What may this mean. 
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel 
Revisit 'st thus the glimpses of the moon?" 

I am writing simply as a lover of 
poetry, "uninstructed, but sensitive," not 
as a critic, having no semblance of claim 
to that exalted title, — among the very high- 
est, to my thinking, as the men who wear 
it wortliily are among the rarest ; great 
critics, to this date, having been fewer even 
than great poets; but I believe, or think 
I believe, in the saying of one of the 
brightest of modern Frenchmen: "Le bon 
critique est celui qui raconte les aventures 
de son a me au milieu dcs chefs-d'oeuvre." 
So I deliglit in this adventure of Emerson's 
mind in the midst of '* Hamlet," as I do 
also in a similar one of Wordsworth's, 
who was wont to say, as reported by Haz- 
litt, that he could read Milton's description 
of Satan — 



284 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

"Nor appeared 
Less than Archangel ruined, and the excess 
Of glory obscured '* — 

till he felt "a certain faintness come over 
his mind from a sense of beauty and 
grandeur." 

One thing, surely, we may say about 
verse of this miraculous quality: it does 
not appeal first or principally to the ear; 
it is almost never rich in melodic beauty, 
as such beauty is commonly estimated. 
It is musical, no doubt, but after a secret 
manner of its own. Alliteration, assonance, 
a pleasing alternation and interchange of 
vowel sounds, all such crafty niceties are 
hidden, if not abseht altogether, — so com- 
pletely hidden that the reader never thinks 
of them as either present or absent.* The 
appeal is to the imagination, not to the 
ear, and more is suggested than said. 
Such lines, along with their simplicity of 
language, may well have something of mys- 
teriousness. Yet they must not puzzle the 
mind. The mystery must not be of the 

^ Is there a possible connection between this fact and the 
further one that really magical lines are seldom or never to be 
found in the work of the more distinctively musical poets, — say 
in Coleridge, Shelley, Tennyson, and Swinburne? 



VERBAL MAGIC 285 

smaller sort, that provokes questions. If 
the curiosity is teased in the slightest to 
discover what the words mean, the spell 
is broken. There is no enchantment in a 
riddle. 

Neither is there charm in an epigram, 
be it never so happy, nor in any conceit 
or play upon words. 

"I could not love thee, Dear! so much, 
Loved I not Honor more," — 

nothing of this kind, perfect as it is, will 
answer the test. Mere cleverness might 
compass a thing like tliat. Indeed, the 
very cleverness of it, its courtly graceful- 
ness, its manner (one seems to see the bod- 
ily inflection and tlie wave of the hand that 
go with the phrase), the spice of smartness 
in it, are enough to remove it instantly out 
of the magic circle. Magical verse is neither 
j)retty nor clever. It speaks not of itself. 
If you think of i7, the charm has failed. 

Ill my own case, in lines tliat are 
iiKigical to me, the suggestion or picture is 
generally of something remote from the 
present, a calling uj) of deeds long done 
and men long vanished, or else a fore- 



286 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

boding of that future day when all things 
will be past; a suggestion or picture that 
brings an instant soberness, — reverie, 
melancholy, what you will, — that is the 
most delicious fruit of recollection. It 
suits with this idea that the verse has 
mostly a slow, meditative movement, pro- 
duced, if the reader chooses to pick it to 
pieces, by long vowels and natural pauses, 
or by final and initial consonants standing 
opposite each other, and, between them, 
holding the words apart; such a movement 
as that of the Wordsworth couplet first 
quoted, — 

"For old, unhappy, far-off things, 
And battles long ago," — 

or as that of the still more familiar slow- 
running line from the sonnets of Shake- 
speare, — 

"Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang," — 

a movement that not merely harmonizes 
with the complexion of the thought, but 
heightens it to an extraordinary degree. 
Not that the poet wrote with that end 
consciously in view, or altered a syllable 
to secure it. Wordsworth's lines, it is 



VERBAL MAGIC 287 

safe guessing, were for this time given 
to him, and dropped upon the paper as 
they are, faultless beyond even his too 
meddlesome desire to alter and amend. 
Indeed, in this as in all the best verse, 
it is not the metrical structure that pro- 
duces the imaginative result, but exactly 
the opposite. 

And here, as I think, we may gather a 
hint as to the impassable gulf that sepa- 
rates inspired poetry from the very high- 
est verse of the next lower order. Take 
such a dainty bit of musical craftiness 
as this, the first that offers itself for the 
purpose : — 

"The splendor falls on castle walls 

And snowy summits old in story: 
The long hght shakes across the lakes. 

And the wild cataract leaps in glory. 
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying, 
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, d}ing, dying, dying." 

Admirable after its kind, a kind of which 
it might seem unfair to say that less is 
meant than meets the ear; but set it be- 
side the Wordsworth couplet, so easy, so 
simple, — 

"Without all ornament, itself and true," — 



288 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

so inevitable and yet so impossible. One 
is cheap in its materials, but divine in its 
birth and in its effect; the other is made 
of rare and costly stuffs, but when all is 
done it is made. Though it sound old- 
fashioned to say so, there is no art like 
inspiration. 

The supreme achievement of poetic 
genius is not the writing of beautiful pas- 
sages, but the conception and evolution of 
great poems, — the whole, even in a work 
of the imagination, being greater than any 
of its parts; but poetic inspiration reaches 
its highest jet, if we may so speak, its 
ultimate bloom, in occasional lines of tran- 
scendent and, as human judgment goes, 
perfect loveliness. I should like to see a 
rigorously sifted collection of such frag- 
ments, an anthology of magical verse, 
nothing less than magic being admitted. 
It would be a small volume, — 

"Infinite riches in a little room;" 

but it would need an inspired reader to 
make it. 



QUOTABILITY 



QUOTABILITY 

There is a kind of writing by which the 
reader is led along, perhaps hurried along, 
if it be a narrative, without pause from 
beginning to end. Everything follows di- 
rectly from what has gone before ; the 
mind is held upon the same level of inter- 
est; and the impression produced is, as it 
were, a single impression. There is another 
kind of writing, which brings the reader 
now and then to a halt. He looks up from 
the page, perhaps, fixing his eyes upon 
vacancy, and turning the thought, or the 
expression of it, over in his mind; or he 
betakes himself to a book of extracts and 
conveys a sentence or two into its keeping; 
or, possibly, if he is one of the rare ones 
who buy books and read with pencil in 
hand, he may indite a note on the margin 
of the leaf, or at least set a mark there, — 
as one blazes a tree at the foot of which trea- 
sure is buried. The author has said some- 
thing, — something in particular, fresh, 



292 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

surprising, original; something that seems 
to have come from his own mind; a thing 
to be pondered over and returned upon. 
For the moment there is no going further; 
the reader has turned thinker, or is lost 
in a dream. It is as if a man had been 
walking down a pleasant road bordered 
with hedges and fields, one much like 
another, and now of a sudden has rounded 
a corner, and sees before him a lake or 
a waterfall, something new, different, un- 
expected, at the sight of which he stops 
as by instinct. Or you may say, it is as 
if a man had been traveling steadily for- 
ward, thinking only of his journey's end, 
and all at once catches the shine of a gold 
piece in the path, or sees by the wayside a 
flower^so novel and beautiful that it must 
be stepped aside for and looked at. 

We have had in America three writers, 
living in the same country village at the 
same time, who exemplified in a really 
striking manner these two styles of writ- 
ing: Hawthorne on the one hand, and 
Emerson and Thoreau on the other. 

Hawthorne's work you may read from 
end to end without the teinptation to 



QUOTABILITY 293 

transfer so much as a line to the com- 
monplace book. The road has taken you 
through many interesting scenes, and past 
many a beautiful landscape ; you may 
have felt much and learned much; you 
might be glad to turn back straightway 
and travel the course over again; but you 
will have picked up no coin or jewel to 
put away in a cabinet. This characteris- 
tic of Hawthorne is the more noteworthy 
because of the moral quality of his work. 
A mere story-teller may naturally keep his 
narrative on the go, as we say, — that is 
one of the chief secrets of his art; but 
Hawthorne was not a mere story-teller. 
He was a moralist, — Emerson himself 
hardly more so; yet he has never a moral 
sentence. The fact is, he did not make 
sentences; he made books. The story, not 
the sentence, nor even the paragraph or 
the chapter, was the unit. The general 
truth — the moral — informed the work. 
Not only was it not affixed as a label; it 
was not given anywhere a direct and 
se})arable verbal expression. If the story 
does not convey it to you, you will never 
get it. Hawthorne, in short, was what, 



294 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

for lack of a better word, we may call a 
literary artist. 

Emerson and Thoreau, on the other 
hand, were journalizers. Their life was 
not to create, but to think, to see, to read, 
and to set down the results of it all, 
day by day. When Emerson would make 
a piece of literature, — a lecture, or an 
essay, or even a book, — he sought out 
related paragraphs from his diary, dove- 
tailed them together, disguising the joints 
more or less successfully, as might happen, 
— it was no great matter, — added col- 
lateral ideas as they occurred to him, and 
the job was done. It was done the more 
easily because the journal was not a re- 
ceptacle for impressions hastily noted. 
Sentence and paragraph had been assid- 
uously finished to a word, turned this way 
and that and settled finally into shape, 
before they went into it; for a journal, 
with him, was not a collection of rough 
jewels, but a drawer full of pearls and 
precious stones, each carefully cut and 
polished, ready for the setting or the string. 

And what was true of Emerson was 
true in good degree of Thoreau, who fol- 



QUOTABILITY 295 

lowed the same general method, but with 
a less pronounced and continuous effect 
of discontinuity: partly, it would appear, 
because of a difference in the turn of his 
mind (more given to reason, and less to 
intuition), and partly because of the nar- 
rative form into which his natural his- 
torical bent almost of necessity carried 
him, — a form by which pages and whole 
chapters of his work are held pretty closely 
together. 

If with Hawthorne we put Irving, — 
who was like him so far as the point now 
under consideration is concerned, fluidity 
of style and an absence of ''passages," 
— we have four of our American classics 
in well-contrasted pairs. One pair, we 
may say, did work that was like tapestry, 
woven throughout; the other's product 
was rather Hke patchwork, — composed 
of rare and valuable stuff, but still patch- 
work. 

This comparison, be it understood, is 
not to })c taken as an attempt to settle 
a question of comj)arative rank. A con- 
trast is not of itself an appraisal, nor a 
figure of speech an end of the argument. 



296 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

And after all, if figures of speech are to be 
regarded, a floor of tiles may be as beau- 
tiful, and even as "artistic," as the finest 
of woven carpets. Let comparisons go. 
We may study differences without exalt- 
ing one or depreciating another. Of the 
four writers now named, we are not to say 
that any one was greater than all the 
rest. Each had his superiorities and his 
inferiorities, the second necessary concom- 
itants of the first; for every virtue casts its 
shadow. 

Emerson, for his part, seems to have 
been keenly aware of the disconnectedness 
of his work, — his "formidable tendency 
to the lapidary style," he terms it, — and 
even to have accepted it as a defect. "I 
dot evermore in my endless journal, a line 
on every knowable in nature," he writes 
to Carlyle; "but the arrangement loiters 
long, and I get a brick-kiln instead of a 
house." That was one face of the medal; 
but his "bricks" are now of more value 
than many another man's streetful of build- 
ings. 

Thoreau, though he too had his humble 
moods, was in general more self-reliant 



QUOTABILITY 297 

— or at least more self-assertive — than 
his older friend and master. He believed 
in the ** lapidary style," or in some whole- 
some approach to it; and what he believed 
in he would stand up for. "We hear it 
complained of some works of genius," he 
says, "that they have fine thoughts, but 
are irregular and have no flow. But even 
the mountain peaks on the horizon are, to 
the eye of science, parts of one range." He 
is defending Emerson, — though he does 
not name him, — and, indirectly, himself; 
and with the same end in view he goes 
on to praise Sir Walter Raleigh, whose 
style, he says, has a natural emphasis, like 
a man's tread, " and a breathing space 
between the sentences." And he declares, 
correctly enough, that what the ignorant 
applaud as a "flow" of style is much of it 
notliing but a "rapid trot." 

One tiling is certain: a man must work 
according to his own inctliod. For him 
that is the best method, and indeed the 
only one. Carlyle entreated Emerson to 
"bcconu* concrete, and write in prose the 
straightest way." "I wish you would take 
an American Hero, one whom you really 



298 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

love; and give us a History of him, — make 
an artistic bronze statue (in good words) 
of his Life and him. I do indeed." Tho- 
reau's appeal to Emerson is for exactly the 
opposite : less art, if need be, and less con- 
creteness, but more "far-off heats," more 
"star-dust and undissolvable nebulae." To 
that end he turns Emerson's own verse 
against him. "From his 

'lips of cunning fell 
The thrilling Delphic oracle.' 

And yet sometimes, — 

We should not mind if on our ear there fell 
Some less of cunning, more of oracle." 

Clever critics, both of them, the Scotch- 
man and the Yankee; but meanwhile, 
between the two fires, Emerson kept on 
polishing pearls and cutting cameos, with 
hardly so much as an attempt at an "ar- 
tistic bronze statue." The author of the 
essay on " Self -Reliance " knew that a man 
must work with his own mind, as he must 
wear his own face; that no method is so 
good or so bad but that it may be damaged 
by an attempt to make it as good as an- 
other's. 



QUOTABILITY 299 

And admirable as artistic perfection and 
absolute unity are, there remains a place, 
and a high place, for works of another 
order. All the world, even the stickler 
for classical perfection, loves a good sen- 
tence. Blessed is the writer who now and 
then makes one. We forgive him for care- 
lessness of construction, and, almost, for 
every other literary fault, if once in a while 
— not too infrequently — he packs wit or 
wisdom into a score or so of memorable 
words. 

In speaking of a quotable style, we are 
not thinking of works like the Wisdom of 
Solomon, the Meditations of Marcus Au- 
rehus, and the Thoughts of Pascal and 
Joubert, books that are nothing but collec- 
tions of maxims and aphorisms; nor even 
of books like Bacon's Essays or Amiel's 
Journal, that come near to falling under 
the same head. To find a happy and preg- 
nant sentence in such a place is like tak- 
ing an apple out of a dish and eating it at 
the table; to run upon one in the reading 
of a hook is like plucking an apple from 
a wayside tree in the midst of a half-day 
ramble, and munching it on the road. 



300 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

The fruit may be as fair and well-flavored 
in the first case as in the second, but what 
a difference in the relish of it! It is one 
thing to receive a coin over the banker's 
counter, and another to pick a nugget 
out of the gravel. In reading, as well as 
anywhere else, a man enjoys the thrill of 
discovery. 

Here, in great part, lies the enduring 
charm of an author like Montaigne, who 
wrote without plan, rambling at his own 
sweet will, never sticking to his text, and 
never so much as dreaming of unity or 
anything else that could be called "ar- 
tistic," yet making a book to live forever. 
As Sainte-Beuve says, you may open it 
at what page you will, and be in what 
mood you may, and you are sure to find 
a wise thought expressed in lively and 
durable phrase, a beautiful meaning set in 
a single strong line. And the best of it all 
is that these fine sentences, so detachable 
and memorable, are written like all the 
rest of the essay, and are part and parcel 
of it. No attention is called to them; 
they call no attention to themselves. They 
drop on the page, and the pen runs on. 



QUOTABILITY 301 

Seemingly, it was as easy for the writer to 
set down a "durable" phrase — done once 
for all and past all bettering — as to men- 
tion the kind of fish he preferred or any 
other trivial every-day matter. His good 
things are never tainted with smartness, 
the besetting vice of sentence-makers in 
general, nor have tliey at all the appear- 
ance of things designed to nudge the 
reader, to keep him awake, as if the writer 
had said to himself, " Go to, let us brighten 
up the discussion a bit." 

A gift of this sort comes mostly by na- 
ture, but no one ever wrote much and well 
without arriving at some pretty definite 
notions as to the art of writing; and so 
it was with Montaigne. If his style was 
discursive, formless, highly sententious, 
and yet to an extraordinary degree fa- 
miliar, he was not only aware of the fact, 
l)ut gloried in it. lie loved a natural and 
plain way of speaking, he tells us; the 
same on paper as in the mouth; juicy and 
sinewy {succulent et nerveux), irregular, 
incontinuous and bold, every piece a body 
by itself, — "a soldier-like style." Fine 
words he had no place for. "May I never 



302 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

use any other language than what is used 
in the markets of Paris!" he exclaims. 
As for mere rhetoric, he held it cheap, 
as every good writer does. Word paint- 
ing, no matter how well done, is "easily 
obscured by the lustre of a simple truth." 
But a good sentence, a thing worth saying 
and well said, he believed to be always 
in order. "If it is not good for what went 
before nor for what comes after, it is 
good in itself." He praises Tacitus for 
being "full of sentences." And therein, 
perhaps, as in Thoreau's eulogy of Sir 
Walter Raleigh, we may see the author 
defending his own practice. There is no 
neater way of speaking well of ourselves 
than by complimenting our own special 
virtues in the person of another. In truth, 
however, Montaigne had no need to apolo- 
gize even with indirectness. His "good 
sentences" are not only good in them- 
selves, but good for what precedes and 
follows. They are never stuck on nor 
thrust in. On the contrary, as has been 
already observed, they are sure to be part 
of the very substance of the essay itself. 
You will never find Montaigne writing or 



QUOTABILITY 303 

retaining a paragraph for the sake of its 
snapper, like those authors of whom he 
said that they would "go a mile out of 
their way to run after a fine word." 

There is a natural relation, it would 
seem, between a quotable style and a fond- 
ness for quoting. If a man's own thought 
falls easily into well-minted, separable 
phrases, he will almost of course be ap- 
preciative of similar aphoristic turns of 
speech in the works of others. So we find 
Montaigne's pages bespattered from top 
to bottom with extracts from the philo- 
sophers and poets of an older time. As 
years passed, and successive editions of 
the book were published, the quotations 
grew more and more numerous, till some 
of the essays seemed in danger of losing 
their identity and becoming hardly more 
than leaves out of a commonplace book. 

And as it was with the Frenchman, so 
was it with our two Concord philosophers, 
Emerson and Thoreau. They were almost 
as fond of others' bright things as of their 
own. And the same may be said of their 
contemporary and critic, Lowell, who, like 
them, was also a master of the phrase, a 



304 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

putter forth of "stamped sentences," like 
gold and silver coins, as one of his ad- 
mirers has called them. He, too, is always 
offering us a nugget out of another man's 
pack. All three of these men, be it added, 
borrowed not only with freedom, but with 
great advantage to their own work. They 
had a right to borrow, being in good mea- 
sure original in their very quotations, be- 
cause, as has been remarked of Montaigne, 
" they employed them only when they found 
in them an idea of their own, or had been 
struck by them in a new and singular 
manner." 

But what a change when we turn to 
Hawthorne! His work is all of. a piece, 
woven in his own loom. As nobody quotes 
him, so he quotes nobody. Inverted com- 
mas are as scarce on his pages as Novem- 
ber violets are in the Concord meadows. 
You will find them, but you will have to 
search for them. On Thoreau's page they 
are thick as violets in May. 

We were not undertaking to determine 
rank or to appraise values, we said, but 
so much as this we will venture upon 
suggesting : that a piece of pure art — 



QUOTABILITY 305 

"The Scarlet Letter," if you will — is not 
on that ground alone to be considered 
as worthier in itself, or better assured of 
lasting honor, than some work less per- 
fectly constructed, but, it may be, more 
nobly inspired. In the final result of 
things, literary merit and literary fame 
are not portioned out by any critical yard- 
stick. Lowell complained of Thoreau 
that "he had no artistic power such as 
controls a great work to the serene bal- 
ance of completeness." True enough. 
It is the same criticism which Carlyle, 
and Arnold after him, brought against 
Emerson; in whose case, also, we need 
not dispute the point. But Lowell said 
further of Thoreau, "His w^ork gives me 
the feeling of a sky full of stars;" and 
again: "As we read him, it seems as if 
all-out-of-doors had kept a diary and be- 
come its own Montaigne. . . . Compared 
with his, all other books of similar aim, 
even AMiite's *Selborne,' seem dry as a 
country clergyman's meteorological jour- 
nal in an old almanac." In other words, 
Thoreau was not an artist, but he did 
something new, and something grandly 



306 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

worth doing. Emerson, likewise, was not 
an artist; but the critic who tells us so 
tells us in the same breath that Emerson's 
essays are the most important work done 
in English prose during their century. 

Whether Emerson will outlive Haw- 
thorne, or Hawthorne outlive Emerson, 
who can say.? It would be rash guessing 
to attempt a prophecy. As for Thoreau, 
there are some, perhaps, who would bid 
higher for his chance of immortality than 
for that of either of his two famous towns- 
men. 

Let such things turn out as they may, 
Emerson and Thoreau have each given 
to American literature, and better still to 
American life, something that can never 
be lost, even though their works and 
their names together should be forgot- 
ten; and they have done this partly by 
reason of their very limitations, their 
making of sentences and paragraphs — 
portable wisdom — instead of " artistic 
bronze statues." "Wisdom is the princi- 
pal thing," said an ancient writer; and an 
English critic and statesman of our own 
day has uttered the same truth in more 



QUOTABILITY 307 

modern fashion. "Aphorism or maxim," 
says Mr. John Morley, "let us remember 
that this wisdom of Hfe is the true salt 
of literature; that those books, at least 
in prose, are most nourishing which are 
most richly stored with it; and that it 
is one of the main objects, apart from 
the mere acquisition of knowledge, which 
men ought to seek in the reading of 
books." 

Yes, and it is one of the objects that 
men do seek; for the history of literature 
proves abundantly that the world keeps a 
relish for that which feeds the soul as well 
as for that which ministers to the pas- 
sion for beauty; if it crowns the literary 
artist, it has a wreath also for his hum- 
bler brother — if he is humbler — the 
originator and disseminator of thought. 
For it is to be considered that a man with 
a genius for writing is not therefore a 
man of original ideas, or indeed, so far 
as the necessity of the case goes, of any 
ideas at all. His gift may be — nay, per- 
liaps is likely to be — purely artistic and 
literary, a faculty for seeing and describ- 
ing. Tluis we read of Sterne that he was 



308 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

a great author, "not because of great 
thoughts, for there is scarcely a sentence 
in his writings which can be called a 
thought, . . . but because of his wonder- 
ful sympathy with and wonderful power 
of representing simple human nature." 
Obviously, it is not to such as he that we 
are to go in search of wisdom. The man 
who furnishes us with that commodity, 
the quotable man, be his rank higher or 
lower, is one who thinks, or, lacking that, 
has an instinct for the discovery and ex- 
pression of thought, — a man under the 
friction of whose pen ideas crystallize into 
handy and final shape, and so become 
current coin. 



THE GRACE OF OBSCURITY 



THE GRACE OF OBSCURITY 

Clearness, directness, ease, precision, — 
these are literary virtues of a homely and 
primary sort. Reserve, urbanity, depth, 
force, suggestiveness, — these, too, are vir- 
tues, and happy the writer who has them. 
He is master of his art. 

No good workman likes to be praised 
overmuch for the elementary qualities. Let 
some things be taken for granted, or 
touched upon lightly. Tell a schoolboy 
that he writes grammatically, — if you can, 
— but not the editor of a newspaper. Al- 
most as well confide to your banker that 
you hold him for something better than a 
thief. "Simplicity be cursed!" a sensitive 
writer used to exclaim, as book after book 
elicited the same good-natured verdict. 
"They mean that I am simple, easily seen 
through. Henceforth I will be muddy, see- 
ing it is beyond me to be deep." But na- 
ture is inexorable, and with the next book 
it was the same story. Probably there is 



312 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

not a line of his work over which any two 
readers ever disputed as to its meaning. 
In vain shall such a man dream of im- 
mortality. Great books, books to which 
readers return, books that win vogue and 
maintain it, books for the study of which 
societies are organized and about which 
libraries accumulate, must be of a less 
flimsy texture, — in his own testy phrase, 
less "easily seen through." 

Consider the great classics of all races, 
the Bibles of the world. Not one but 
abounds in dark sayings. What another 
book the Hebrew Scriptures would be if 
the same text could never be interpreted 
in more than one way, if some texts could 
ever be interpreted at all! How much less 
matter for preaching! How much less mo- 
tive for exegetical research! And withal, 
how much less appeal to the deepest of 
human instincts, the passion for the vague, 
the far away, and the mysterious ! 

All religious teachers, in so far as they 
are competent and sincere, address them- 
selves to this instinct. The worthier they 
are of their calling, the better do they ap- 
preciate the value of paradox and parable. 



THE GRACE OF OBSCURITY 313 

Tlie greatest of them made open profes- 
sion of his purpose to speak over the heads 
of his hearers; and his followers are still 
true to his example in that particular, how- 
ever they may have improved upon it in 
other respects. They no longer encourage 
evil by turning the other cheek to the 
smiter; not many of them foster indolence 
by selling all that they have and giving to 
the poor; but without exception they speak 
things hard to be understood. Therein, 
in part at least, lies their power; for man- 
kind craves a religion, a revelation of the 
unseen and the unprovable, and is not to 
be put off with simple morality, with such 
commonplace and worldly things as hon- 
esty, industry, purity, and brotherly love. 
No church ever waxed great by the incul- 
cation of these humble, earthly, every-day 
virtues. 

In literature, the value of half-lights is 
recognized, consciously or not, by all who 
dabble in foreign tongues. Indeed, so far, 
at least, as amateurs are concerned, it is 
one of the chief encouragements to lin- 
guistic studies, the heightened pleasure of 
reading in a language but half understood. 



314 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

The imagination is put freshly in play, 
and time-worn thoughts and too famil- 
iar sentiments are again almost as good 
as new. Doudan, writing to a friend in 
trouble, drops suddenly into English, with 
a sentence or two about the universality of 
misfortune. "Commonplaces regain their 
truth in a strange language," he explains; 
"if we complain of ordinary evils, we ought 
to do it in Latin." The hint is worth tak- 
ing. So long as we have something novel 
and important to communicate, we may 
choose the simplest words. "Clearness is 
the ornament of profound thoughts," says 
Vauvenargues ; but we need not go quite so 
far as the same philosopher when he bids 
us reject all thoughts that are "too feeble to 
bear a simple expression." That would be 
to reduce the literary product unduly. Jou- 
bert is a more comforting adviser. " Banish 
from words all uncertainty of meaning," he 
says, "and you have made an end of poetry 
and eloquence." " It is a great art," he adds, 
"the art of being agreeably ambiguous." 
Such tributes to the vague are the more 
significant as coming from Frenchmen, 
who, of all people, may be said to worship 



THE GRACE OF OBSCURITY 315 

lucidity. Let us add, then, the testimony 
of one of the younger French writers, a 
man of our own day. "Humanity hardly 
attaches itself with passion to any works of 
poetry and art," says M. Anatole France, 
"unless some parts of them are obscure 
and susceptible of diverse interpretations." 
And in another place in the same volume 
(" Le Jardin d'Epicure ") we come upon this 
fine saying: "What life has of the best is 
the idea it gives us of an unknown some- 
thing which is not in it." How true that 
is of literature, also! The best thing we 
derive from a book is something that the 
author never quite succeeded in putting 
into it. What good reader (and without 
good reading there is no good writing) has 
not found a glimpse, a momentary bright- 
ness as of something infinitely far off, more 
exciting and memorable than whole pages 
of crystalline description ? 

Vagueness like this is one of the noblest 
gifts of a writer. Artifice cannot compass it. 
If a man would have it, let him pray for a 
soul, and refresh himself continually with 
dreams and high imaginings. Then if, in 
addition, he have genius, knowledge, and 



316 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

literary tact, there may be hope for him. 
But even then the page must find the reader. 

Of vagueness of a lower order there is 
always plenty; some of it a matter of indi- 
vidual temperament, some of it a matter of 
art, and some a matter of a want of art. It 
is not to be despised, perhaps, since it has 
utility and a marketable value. It results 
in the formation of clubs, and so is promo- 
tive of social intercourse. It makes it worth 
men's while to read the same book twice, 
or even thrice, and so is of use in reliev- 
ing the tedium of the world. It renders 
unspeakable service to worthy people who 
would fain have a fine taste in literature, 
but for whom, as yet, it is more absorbing 
to guess riddles than to read poems; and it 
is almost as good as a corruption of the 
text to the favored few who have an eye for 
invisible meanings, — men like the famous 
French philosopher who discovered extraor- 
dinary beauty in certain profundities of 
Pascal, which turned out to be errors of a 
copyist. 

This inferior kind of obscurity, like most 
things of a secondary rank, is open to cul- 
tivation, although the greater number of 



THE GRACE OF OBSCURITY 317 

those who profit by such husbandry are slow 
to acknowledge the obligation. A bright 
exception is found in Thoreau. He was 
one who believed in telling the truth. "I 
do not suppose that I have attained to ob- 
scurity," he writes. But he was too modest 
by half. He did attain to it, and in both 
kinds : sometimes in willful paradox and 
exaggeration, a sort of " Come, now, good 
reader, no falling asleep!" and sometimes, 
but less often, — for such visitations are 
rare with the best of men, — in some quick, 
unstudied phrase that opens, as it were, an 
unsuspected door within us, and makes us 
forget for the time being both the author 
and his book. 

Perhaps it would be true to say that when 
men are most inspired, their speech be- 
comes most like Nature's own, — inartic- 
ulate, and so capable of expressing things 
inexpressible. Wliat book, what line of 
verse, ever evoked those unutterable feel- 
ings — feelings beyond even the thought 
of utterance — that are wakened in us 
now and then, in divinely favorable mo- 
ments, by the plash of waters or tlie sigh- 
ing of winds ? When an author does aught 



318 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

of this kind for us, we must love and praise 
him, let his shortcomings be what they 
will. If a man is great enough in himself, 
or serviceable enough to us, we need not 
insist upon all the minor perfections. 

For the rest, these things remain true: 
language is the work of the people, and 
belongs to the people, however lexicogra- 
phers and grammarians may codify, and 
possibly, in rare instances, improve it. 
Commonplaces are the staple of literature. 
The great books appeal to men as men, 
not as scholars. A fog is not a cloud, though 
a man with his feet in the mud may hug 
himself and say, "Look, how I soar!" 
Preciosity is good for those that like it; 
they have their reward; but to set up a 
conventicle, with passwords and a private 
creed, is not to found a religion. In the 
long run, nothing is supremely beautiful 
but genuine simplicity, which may be a 
perfection of nature or the perfection of 
art; and the only obscurity that suits with 
it and sets it off is occasional, unexpected, 
momentary, — a sudden excess of light 
that flashes and is gone, surprising the 
writer first, and afterward the reader. 



IN DEFENSE OF THE TRAV- 
ELER'S NOTE-BOOK 



IN DEFENSE OF THE TRAV- 
ELER'S NOTE-BOOK 

It is a more or less common habit of 
Americans to cry out against the conceit 
of foreigners, Englishmen especially, who, 
after a run through ''the States," publish 
their impressions of the country. These 
outcries — though that may seem too 
strong a word — are supposed to be quite 
independent of the character of the com- 
ments in question, whether favorable or 
unfavorable. In the tourist's eyes, Ameri- 
cans may be an uninteresting, boastful, 
worldly-minded people. The magnitude 
of our lakes may not blind him to the 
imperfections of our newspapers, and in 
spite of Niagara and the prairies, he may 
esteem our politicians, for the most part, 
a vulgar and time-serving set. Wliatever 
criticisms of this sort he in his unwisdom 
may feel called upon to express are likely 
to have their modicum of truth; at least 
they would have, if any one but a foreigner 



322 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

were to utter them. Araerieans are not 
slow to say similar things of each other, 
and especially of their public men. Except 
on the Fourth of July, we are far from 
constituting anything fairly to be called 
a mutual admiration society. The com- 
plaint, then, is not that the tourist offers 
criticism of such and such a tenor, but 
that he takes it upon himself to offer 
any criticism at all. What business has 
he with "impressions of America" after a 
visit of a month or two ? And even if he 
has impressions, why should he be so pre- 
sumptuous as to print them.? A great 
people cannot be understood after this 
haphazard, percursory fashion. True; but 
the objection is futile, if for no other rea- 
son, because it goes wide of the mark. The 
question is not of understanding a people, 
but of having something to say about them. 
Since the world began, men have trav- 
eled, and, having traveled, have recounted 
their adventures. The two things go to- 
gether, and are alike inevitable. And the 
thing that hath been, it is that which shall 
be. Some authors travel in other men's 
books; some travel in the outward and 



THE TRAVELER'S NOTE-BOOK 323 

literal sense of the word; and both tell as 
good a story as they can of the wonders 
they have seen. It is only here and there 
a philosopher who can sit at home and spin 
his web out of his own insides. Thoreau 
delighted to talk as if Concord were the 
centre and sum of the world. Everything 
grew there, everything happened there. 
Why should a Concord man ever stir be- 
yond the town limits ? Sure enough ! And 
yet what are Thoreau 's books but records 
of his journeys : *'A Week on the Con- 
cord and Merrimack Rivers;" "TheMaine 
Woods ; " " Cape Cod ; " " A Yankee in Can- 
ada;" "Excursions." With him, as with 
the rest of us, it was the volume he had 
just read that he liked to talk about; it 
was the country he had just seen that his 
pen naturally busied itself with describing. 
Even his one Concord book is really a 
book of travels. To write it he went into 
camp, that he might study the world on its 
off side, as it were, and feel his life new. 

In other words, for here we come to tlie 
pith of the matter, it is the fresh impres- 
sion that is vivid, and therefore will have 
itself expressed. We may almost say that 



324 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

it is the only thing that can be expressed. 
This is what Bagehot had in mind. "Those 
who know a place or a person best," he 
said, "are not those most likely to describe 
it best ; their knowledge is so familiar that 
they cannot bring it out in words." And 
this truth, partial though it be, and, like 
all truth, liable to misunderstanding and 
abuse, is the scribbling tourist's encourage- 
ment, and, if he be supposed to need it, his 
perennial justification. 

More than one scholar has failed to pro- 
duce the great work that was expected of 
him, — that he of all men seemed elected 
to produce, — simply because he put off 
the doing of it till his knowledge should 
be something like complete. So monumen- 
tal a structure could not be too carefully 
prepared for, he thought : a conscientious- 
ness most scholarly and honorable, but 
deadly in its result ; for by the time he had 
laid in his stores, he had lost the freshness 
of his enthusiasm ; a palsy had stricken 
his pen; and by and by the night came, 
and his knowledge perished with him. 

Writers of travels, whatever their short- 
comings, fall into no error of this kind. 



THE TRAVELER'S NOTE-BOOK 325 

They strike while the iron is hot; and 
whether their subject be Africa or Amer- 
ica, that is the true method. The value of 
such literature depends on the observer's 
alertness, fairness, good sense, and general 
competency, rather than upon the length 
and leisureliness of his journey. Time of 
itself never did much for a blind man's 
vision; and to come back to our English- 
man, he may run through America in a 
month, or spend a year in his note-taking, 
and in either event he will discover only 
what he came prepared to discover. If the 
photographic plate is sensitive enough, it 
may need but the briefest exposure. And 
anyhow, let the picture turn out never so 
badly, no irreparable harm is done. The 
object itself is not altered because its por- 
trait is drawn awry. What we have to 
dread is not the foreigner's unfair opinion 
of us, but our unfair opinion of the for- 
eigner. It is our own thoughts that do us 
injury, not other men's thoughts about us. 
And if this be too rare an atmosphere for 
comfortable e very-day breathing, we may 
come at a similar result on lower ground. 
Wlio are we, that we should be treated 



326 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

better than the rest of the world? Must 
our feelings never be hurt, because we are 
Americans ? Have we never learned that 
it is a man's part to be thankful for intelli- 
gent and friendly criticism, and to bear all 
other in silence ? 

Let visitors to "the States," then, be "im- 
pressed;" and let them print their impres- 
sions, the more the better. Some of them 
will be shallow, some of them unkindly and 
prejudiced, some, perhaps, ignorantly and 
foolishly eulogistic. We shall be blamed 
for faults that are beyond our mending, 
and praised for virtues that were never 
ours, — if such virtues there be. At best, 
the criticism and the comment will fall 
a little short of inerrancy; for perfection 
is one of the lost arts, even in England; 
but in the sum many true things will be 
said, and in the end the cause of truth 
will be forwarded; and possibly, if a thou- 
sand English pens are thus employed, 
one of them may happen to make an 
immortal picture of the Great Republic 
as it now is, and as it will not be, for 
better or worse, a hundred years hence. 
Thus it is, at any rate, by one lucky experi- 



THE TRAVELER'S NOTE-BOOK 327 

menter out of many, that immortal work 
is done. 

Some critics, it is true, would have lit- 
erature, even current literature, to consist 
solely of such happy strokes. Let no man 
write anything till he can write a master- 
piece, they say. Yes, and let no boy go 
near the water till he has learned to swim; 
and since crows have waxed destructive, 
let cornfields be planted hereafter with 
no outside rows; and lest malarial fevers 
should make an end of the human race, 
let all plains and valleys be filled up, and 
nothing remain but mountains. In short, 
seeing that failure has been the rule hith- 
erto, let us abolish rules, and get on with 
exceptions alone ; a condition of things 
curiously prefigured in certain Grammars 
of the Latin Language, of a kind still sor- 
rowfully remembered by elderly people. 
A fine economy, surely, and well worth 
thinking about. But for the time being, till 
dreams become substantial, this present 
evil world, as we reverently call it, remem- 
bering its Creator, must be suffered to jog 
along in its ancient, expensive, wasteful- 
seeming, happy-go-lucky, highly-exception- 



328 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

able manner : a million seeds, and one tree ; 
a million books, and one chef-d'oeuvre. 
Classics are not yet produced of set pur- 
pose, nor do they make their advent in 
royal isolation, starred and wearing the 
laurel. They come, as was said just now, 
with the crowd, the "spawn of the press," 
if they come at all, and are only sifted out 
by the slow hand of time. And meanwhile 
their humbler fellows, missing of immor- 
tality, may nevertheless have their day and 
serve their turn. Readers, fortunately or 
unfortunately, are of many grades, and 
even the wisest of them — in some unwiser 
but not infrequent mood — desire not a 
classic, but something a shade less excel- 
lent. "There is no book that is acceptable, 
unless at certain seasons." So said Mil- 
ton; and the saying is true, even of ''Par- 
adise Lost." In the great sea of literature 
there is room both for the big fish and for 
"the other fry." Let us be thankful; and 
if we are scribblers, by nature or by con- 
ceit, let us scribble on. 



CONCERNING THE LACK OF AN 
AMERICAN LITERATURE 



CONCERNING THE LACK OF AN 
AMERICAN LITERATURE 

"Writers who have no past are pretty sure of having 
no future.'* — Lowell. 

It is an old story that the people of the 
United States have been slow in achieving 
their intellectual independence. The Brit- 
ish yoke has remained upon our minds, 
though we have cast it off our necks. Our 
literary men, especially, have deferred to 
English models and English ideas. So we 
have been told till the tale has become 
monotonous. 

What everybody says must be true — 
perhaps; but even so, there may be some- 
thing to offer on the other side, or by 
way of extenuation, although the man who 
should venture to off'er it — such is the 
peculiarity of the case and tlie perversity 
of human nature — might find himself ac- 
counted unpatriotic for coming to the 
defense of liis own countrymen. 

In times past, assuredly, whatever may 



332 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

be true now, the condition of things so 
much complained of was httle reprehen- 
sible. Good or bad, it was nothing more 
than was to have been expected as cir- 
cumstances then were. We had been 
English to begin with, and, for better or 
worse, the English nature is not of a sort 
to be put off with a turn of the hand, at 
the signing of a political document. It 
is self-evident, also, that in the world of 
ideas every people, whether it will or no, 
must live largely upon its ancestry. The 
utmost that any generation can hope to 
do is to contribute its mite to the intel- 
lectual tradition. The better part of its 
reading must be out of books that its pre- 
decessors have sifted from the mass and 
handed down. If it adds a few of its own 
— two or three, by good luck — to the 
permanent literature of the race, it does 
all that can reasonably be demanded of 
it. And even so much as this was hardly 
to be looked for from the American people 
during its colonial period and for some 
decades afterwards, with a wilderness to be 
subdued, savage neighbors to be held in 
check, and all the machinery of civiliza- 



LACK OF AMERICAN LITERATURE 333 

tion to be newly set up. Books are a record 
and criticism of life, and those to whom 
life itself is an absorbing occupation are not 
likely, unless they are almost insanely in- 
tellectual, to spend any very considerable 
share of their days in work of a secondary 
and postponable character. Life is more 
than criticism, and the best and greatest 
people are those whose deeds give other 
people something to write about. It is 
not to be wondered at, therefore, if Ameri- 
can books of a kind to be called litera- 
ture were slow in coming ; and we may 
confess without shame that up to the year 
1820 or thereabouts — say till the advent 
of Irving and Cooper — the people of this 
country, if they read anything better than 
sermons and almanacs, were obliged to 
depend chiefly upon foreign authors. To 
which confession it may be added, equally 
without shame, that even the works of 
Cooper and Irving were scarcely sufiicient 
of themselves to satisfy for many years 
together the cravings of eager and seri- 
ous minds. At all times and in all coun- 
tries, such minds, with the best will in 
the world to be loyal to their own day, 



334 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

have been obliged to look mainly to old 
books. 

About the past, then, we need not spend 
time in mourning. If we play our part as 
well as the fathers played theirs, we shall 
have no great cause to blush. Since their 
day, what with Irving and Cooper and their 
contemporaries and successors, there has 
been no dearth of books written on this 
side of the water; but the complaint is 
still rife that we have little or nothing in 
the way of a national literature : by which 
it is meant, apparently, that our writers 
are not vet Americans, or do not succeed 
in expressing the national spirit. Only the 
other day, a critic, discoursing on "the 
conservatism and timidity of our litera- 
ture," charged it against Lowell that "in 
his habits of writing he continued Eng- 
lish tradition," whatever that may mean. 
"Our best scholar" allowed his real self 
to speak but twice, we are given to under- 
stand; then he spoke in dialect. His 
"Commemoration Ode" was a splendid 
failure, because it was " imitative and secon- 
dary." Whether it, too, should have been 
written in dialect, we are not informed ; but 



LACK OF AMERICAN LITERATURE 335 

it appears to be taken for granted that its 
failure, if it was a failure, came, not from 
lack of genius or inspiration, but from de- 
ference to foreign models. One cannot help 
wondering what Lowell himself would have 
said to such a criticism: that he wrote in 
English and like an Englishman because 
he dared not write in his own tongue and in 
his own way. When a Scotchman compli- 
mented him upon his English, — "so like 
a native's," — and asked him bluntly where 
he got it, he answered with equal bluntness, 
in the words of the old song, — 

" • I got it in my mither's wame.* " 

Yet Lowell, who spoke but twice in his 
own character, seems to have done better 
than most of his fellows; for he and Curtis 
are the only men of letters to find a place 
in a recent "Calendar of Great Ameri- 
cans." All their contemporaries and pre- 
decessors were either not great, or else 
were something other than American, 
— cosmopolitan, provincial, or English. 
Irving, Cooper, Poe, Bryant, Hawthorne, 
Longfellow, Emerson, Wliittier, Holmes, 
Prescott, Motley, Bancroft, Parkman, — 



336 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

not one of these will bear the test. As for 
Emerson, he is ruled out by name, because 
he was the "author of such thought as 
might have been native to any clime." He 
is of the world, and therefore not American. 
It seems a hard judgment that the man 
who wrote "The Fortune of the Republic," 
"The Young American," and the "Con- 
cord Hymn," — the man of whom it was 
recently said, so finely and so truly, that 
"he sent ten thousand sons to the war," --- 
should find himself at this late hour a man 
without a country. On such terms it is 
doubtful praise to be called a cosmopoli- 
tan ; and in view of such a ruling it becomes 
evident that the exact nature of American- 
ism as a literary quality is yet to be defined. 
Lowell's attempt in that direction, by-the- 
bye, is probably among the best. An Ameri- 
can, according to Lowell's idea of him, — 
so Mr. James says, — was a man at once 
fresh and ripe. 

When it comes to practice, however, there 
is one American poet whose literary pa- 
triotism was never called in question. The 
reference is of course to Whitman. Listen 
to him, as he appeals to whoever "would 



LACK OF AMERICAN LITERATURE 337 

assume a place to teach or be a poet here 
in the States:" — 

"Who are you indeed who would talk or sing to America ? 

Have you studied out the land, its idioms and men ? 

Have you learned the physiology, phrenology, politics, 
geography, pride, freedom, friendship of the land ? 
its substratums and objects ? 

Have you considered the organic compact of the first day 
of the first year of Independence, signed by the 
Commissioners, ratified by the States, and read 
by Washington at the head of the army ? 

Have you possessed yourself of the Federal Constitution ? 

Do you see who have left all feudal processes and poems 
behind them, and assumed the poems and pro- 
cesses of Democracy ? " 

** Conservatism and timidity"! Here is 
one man, at all events, who is not to be ac- 
cused of ''continuing English tradition." 
He, if nobody else, breathes a "haughty de- 
fiance of the Year One." He may or may 
not be " ripe ; " he certainly is ''fresh." If 
there be some who fail to enjoy his verse, 
there can be none who do not admire his 
courage. 

But surely it was not to be insisted upon, 
nor even expected, that all American au- 
thors should break away thus suddenly 



338 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

and completely from the past. Perhaps it 
was not even to be desh'ed: partly because 
variety is better than the best of sameness, 
and partly because so abrupt a change 
might in the long run have hindered our 
emancipation. Some readers would have 
been puzzled, others would have been of- 
fended. Here and there one, at least, would 
have been ready to say, with Wordsworth, — 

"Me this unchartered freedom tires.'* 

Little by little a reaction would have been 
produced, the "substratums and objects" 
of the land would have suflFered disastrous 
eclipse, "feudal processes and poems" 
would have come in like a flood, and the 
last state of the national mind would have 
been worse than the first. 

Xor can this extreme of revolt, or any 
approach to it, be thought necessary to 
constitute an American writer. "Ameri- 
can" and "rebel" are not svnonvmous at 
this hour of the day. American literature, 
if we may assert our American right to 
speak a truism roundly, is literature writ- 
ten by x4mericans; that is to say, by the 
people of the United States. In its sub- 



LACK OF AMERICAN LITERATURE 339 

ject it may be old or new, domestic or 
foreign ; it may be written in dialect, — 
sometimes called American, — or in Eng- 
lish; in any case, if it is literature at all, 
it is American literature. And since there 
is already a body of such writing, we may 
venture upon another capital letter, by the 
compositor's leave, and speak of it — still 
modestly, and remembering its youth — 
as American Literature. For youthful it 
is, in the nature of the case, with its char- 
acter but imperfectly formed, and its full 
share of juvenile foibles; still showing, as 
is inevitable and not discreditable, abun- 
dant traces of its English origin. 

Thus far, it must be owned, it can boast 
little or no representation among the su- 
premely great of the earth. The genius of 
a new country produces men of action 
rather than poets and philosophers. Wash- 
ington and Lincoln are names to shine 
in any company, but as yet the roll of 
American authors contains few Homers 
and Shakespeares, and no great number 
of Dantes and Miltons. Such as they are, 
however, they are our own, and though in 
some cases we might have wished them 



340 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

more "distinctively American," we need 
not be in haste on that account to tag 
them with a foreign label. Neither need 
we delude ourselves with the notion that 
they might have been transcendent gen- 
iuses, all of them, had they but stood up 
resolutely against the English tradition. 
How to become a genius is one of the hard 
problems. There is no likelihood that it 
can be solved by any process of intellectual 
jingoism. The secret may consist partly in 
being one's self; pretty certainly it does not 
consist in being different . from somebody 
else. Between imitation and a set attempt 
to avoid imitation there is not so very much 
to choose. Either of them stamps the work 
as secondary. As for Homers and Shake- 
speares, we may remember for our comfort 
that names like these are not to be found, 
in any country, among the living: they 
never have been.^ 

For our comfort, too, though not in the 
every-day sense of that word, we do well 

^ According to an eminent French critic, M. de Wyzewa, the 
United States still has (since Whitman's death, he means to say) 
two poets, — Mr. Merril and Mr. Griffin. "Only two" is the 
critic's phrase, but the adverb need not disturb us. A busy people 
who have two poets at once may count themselves rich. 



LACK OF AMERICAN LITERATURE 341 

to remind ourselves that as the greatness 
of our American authors is but relative, 
so is the newness of our American spirit. 
All that is called new is born of the old, 
and is itself in part old. The movement of 
history is not by successive creations of 
something out of nothing, but by the devel- 
opment of one thing from another; and 
whether we like to believe it or not, this 
that we call the American idea stands 
w^ithin the general law : it has been evolved, 
or rather it is being evolved, out of what 
was before it. The public mind, stirred 
by patriotic impulses and restive under 
criticism, may clamor for originality, mean- 
ing by that absolute novelty, and North, 
South, East, and West may exhaust them- 
selves to answer the appeal : we shall 
never see an absolutely new book, be it the 
"great American novel" or anything else. 
As time goes on, we shall have, by the slow 
processes of nature, a literature more and 
more distinctive, more and more indepen- 
dent, and more and more unlike the Eng- 
lish, more and more American; but to the 
end its originality, like tliat of all literature, 
will be but relative. Though men cross the 



342 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

sea, they can never escape the spirit of 
their forerunners. Our very rebelliousness 
against English domination is an English 
trait. The great American book, when it 
comes, will not spring from virgin soil, but 
from seed, and the seed will have had an 
age-long ancestry. "Works proceed from 
works," says a learned French critic; and 
the most searching of American critics had 
something of the same thought in mind 
when he wrote, fifty years ago, in response 
to inquiries "in Cambridge orations and 
elsewhere" for "that great absentee," an 
American literature, "A literature is no 
man's private concern, but a secular and 
generic result." 

What then.^ Shall we cease effort, and 
leave it to blind law to work out for us 
our intellectual salvation.^ That would 
be childish. Because one thing is true, it 
does not follow that another and seemingly 
contradictory thing may not be true like- 
wise. The same Emerson who spoke of lit- 
erature as a "generic result," — a word 
so anticipatory of later thought as to seem 
like a flash of genius, — and therefore "no 
man's private concern," was never done 



LACK OF AMERICAN LITERATURE 343 

with proclaiming the power of the individ- 
ual soul and the omnipotence of individual 
faith. He never scolded his countrymen; 
he cherished no illusion about the ability of 
the American people or any other to hurry 
the accomplishment of a ** secular result;" 
but he, more than all others combined, 
enforced the duty of American scholars to 
free themselves from the swaddling-clothes 
of tradition; to live in the present, think 
in the present, believe in the present, and 
speak always their own word. And the 
French critic just now quoted, so modern 
in his point of view, so very different in 
many respects from Emerson, — though 
Emerson, too, believed the laws and powers 
of the intellect to be "facts in a natural 
history," and so *' objects of science," — 
was quoted but in part. "In literature as 
in art," he says, "the great operative cause 
— after the influence of individuality — is 
that of works upon works." The words are 
those of M. Brunetiere, who, in his attempt 
to apply to literary criticism the methods 
of natural science, has seemed sometimes 
to allow more than enough to the power of 
things over thought; yet he, too, treating 



344 FRIENDS ON THE SHELF 

of the evolution of literary forms, gives the 
first place in that evolution, not to changed 
conditions, nor to the germinal force of 
great models, nor to the "moment," a word 
on which he greatly insists, but to the power 
of the individual. 

And where ought this power of the in- 
dividual to be quickly and strongly felt, if 
not in a democracy and in a new world ? 

Like many other good things, never- 
theless, individuality, though it may pro- 
perly be sought, is not to be gone after 
too directly, — as if it could be carried 
by assault. Originality has often suffered 
violence, it is true, but the violent have 
never taken it by force. We are not to hope 
for intellectual life by any process of spon- 
taneous generation; nor are we to dread 
abjectly the influence of other minds over 
our own. Individuality is a gift rarely lost, 
except by those who lose it before they are 
born. Franklin, it is universally agreed, 
was an American of the most pronounced 
type, one of our greatest and most origi- 
nal men. His style, as Mr. James says 
of Lowell's, was "an indefeasible part of 
him;" yet all the world knows that he 



LACK OF AMERICAN LITERATURE 345 

formed it, or believed that he formed it, by 
a studious imitation of Addison. Origi- 
nality is theirs to whom it is given. With it 
a man may drench himself in the wisdom 
of the ages, and take no harm; without it 
he may eschew books never so jealously, 
and look into his own heart with never so 
complete a faith, and come to no good. 

All of which is not to say that a scholar 
may not occupy himself too much with the 
thoughts of others to the neglect of his own, 
or that Americans as a people may not 
defer unreasonably to foreign standards. 
Between the two extremes, excessive depen- 
dence upon tradition and a too exclusive 
confidence in one's own genius, there is a 
middle course. If we cannot find it, then 
we are not yet ripe for a great national lit- 
erature, which must be the result of the 
old culture bestowed upon new soil in a 
new time and under new conditions. 



Electrotyped and printed hy H . O. Houghton &* Co. 
Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A. 



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FRIENDS 

ON THE 

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